Dream Drugs and Salted Bamboo

The lady bought her supplies of recreational opium over the counter at her regular grocery store in Victoria, British Columbia, a purchase that writer-historian Barbara Hodgson described in a 1999 study entitled Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon, was legal.

Kwong On Lung & Co, purveyors of“sugar, rice, tea, opium, groceries & provisions” was licensed to manufacture and sell opium and regular customer Mrs. Tai Chung was old enough to buy her dream drug along with mundane supplies like “salted turnips, salted bamboo shoot, some charcoal and a hundred dollars worth of pork.”

(Source:  https://web.uvic/ca/vv/student/opium)

Whether Mrs. Chung was buying her opium for personal use, or to maintain the needs of a modestly operated opium den in her cellar or a backroom windowless flat remains unconfirmed, but she was buying opium at a fairly expensive clip and private areas for the smoking of the drug were many and for a few years extremely popular.

On February 13, 1885, her “balance due” with Kwong On Lung was $2,489.08. On the 19th she added another $100 for opium, on the 20th another $50, and on March 11th, she added a further $200 to her private poppy juice fund but made a payment of $500 on her “balance due.” She was still $2,702.25 in bottom-line red and, although neither she nor Kwong On Lung knew it, the opium den was just starting to lose its rating as a popular technicolour dream palace.

It would have gone from dream to nightmare much earlier but for the massive introduction of Chinese labour to build Canadian Pacific’s Trans Canada railway. The opium culture thousands of those workers brought with them delayed the decay. In 1884 there were six opium factories in Victoria. Three years later 13 factories were producing 90,000 pounds of opium at $15 a pound with a “bonus” spin-off production of laudanum. Keeping the workers on the job wasn’t easy. Opium the dream-maker helped.

In the “new world,” opium was waning as a voice guaranteeing “happiness eternal.” That it brought peace and wonderful dreams there could be no doubt – but not forever. In fact, not for very long at all. Canada acknowledged the end of opium’s false promise in July 1908 when it joined the USA and banned open sales of opium in North America

Great Britain had a more difficult time banishing the promise of drugged happiness when many of the brightest artists, poets, and novelists of the UK openly embraced, praised, and used opium themselves and in their works had some of their leading characters excusably – even admirably – addicted.

A few that come quickly to mind are Thomas de Quincey, Byron, Shelley, Barrett-Browning, Coleridge, Dickens, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who even had his redoubtable Sherlock Holmes sneaking a nip of laudanum – a by-product of opium – from time to time to improve his brain power.

Dickens gets right into the nasty stuff when he opens The Mystery of Edwin Drood in an opium den but promotes principal character, Tom Jasper, as a man of integrity and benevolence – and opium addict.

Oscar Wilde, well known for his decadent lifestyle, does seem to condemn it in his Picture of Dorian Gray, but never enough for him to attempt to change it.

And so, here we are in beautiful British Columbia in 2019 with thousands celebrating in our capital city of Victoria the opening of three – more to follow in a matter of days – sparkling new government-licenced stores selling a drug guaranteed to ease pain and bring happy dreams and comfort to all. We don’t have any abundance of official pot dens yet, but can they be far behind government promoted sales?

They tell me marijuana is “safe” and not addictive like opium. And I’m not expert enough to challenge them. But I do know this: the problems I have before I go to sleep tonight will still be there when I wake up tomorrow, however many buds I smoke.

Parliament is Supreme not the Press

When I was ejected from the Speaker’s Corridor back in 2002, fellow denizens of the press gallery looked on with mild amusement. There were no notebooks and microphones at the ready to record my dismissal from the corridors of power. I did, however, detect a snicker or two as I was escorted past an assembling scrum.

It mattered not to the legislature dress code cops that my shirt was white and freshly laundered, my slacks grey and neatly pressed, my hair combed, my shoes shined, my manner courteous – and my neat wind-breaker carried the Union Club crest. Alas, cleanliness may well be next to Godliness, but in the BC Legislature precinct, it goes for naught unless enhanced with jacket and tie.

Grumpily, I moved along the corridor to then-Clerk George MacMinn’s office seeking temporary refuge and maybe a little tea and sympathy.

“George,” I said, “this is outrageous. I’ve just been tossed out of the Speaker’s Corridor … never in 30 years have I …”

“Why?” interrupted George.

“Because I’m not wearing a jacket and tie.”

“Quite right then, wouldn’t you say? Dress code says shirt, tie and jacket. You’re in violation. Quite proper they should ask you to leave.”

No sympathy and no tea either, but I did manage a free cup of coffee before making a run for the exit stairs and freedom. Clown or curmudgeon, makes no difference when the codes and rules authorized by the full Legislature are at risk. I could have staged a sit-in, have demanded then-Speaker Claude Richmond relax the rules to accommodate an ageing scribe. But that would have gained me less sympathy than I received from the Clerk MacMinn and could have led to my physical removal from the precinct, possible arrest and possible charges of showing contempt for the legislature. All three options would have been available had my dress code whimpers slopped over to be construed as contempt for the legislature.

That institution packs a lot of muscle; it has vast powers to protect itself from intruders, royal or common. And, it reserves the right to toss all media out on its collective ear if the spirit so moves it. Not that it will do that in this day and age. We reporters of things political have wangled our way so deep into the system that we’re an unelected part of it. We know the pols need us, can’t function without us – and on occasion, we push that relationship to the limit. But we need to tread this status with care because ancient rights, historic powers are still in play

The centuries have brought significant changes in the tolerance of politicians for the press. There was a time when it was against the law to distribute outside parliament anything that had been said or written inside. In 1640, a fellow named “Overton, the stationer” was ordered to kneel and beg for mercy in the British House of Commons because he had “falsely printed an Order of the House, without the authority of this House.”

Called before the assembly, Overton knelt in quivering repentance as “Mr. Speaker told him that his offence was of a high nature to presume, upon his own authority, to print any Order of this House, and not only so, but to misprint it …” Poor Overton, he’d not only broken the rules; he had also botched the print job.

Then there was Lord Digby who had printed and distributed copies of a speech he had given in the house. Like Overton, he was called to account and forced to listen as: “The Commons resolved that no Member of the House shall either give a copy or publish in print, anything that he shall speak here, without leave of the House.” Digby’s pamphlet was ordered to be burned “publickly (cct) by the hands of the common hangman.”

Remnants on the ban imposed by the first parliaments on any note taking in the public galleries remain to this day. Only in the press gallery can accredited reporters take notes – and even they have to do their scribbling sitting behind the Speaker and therefore out of sight of, and technically unknown to him.

It may seem silly to hold on to such ancient rules in an era when gavel-to-gavel proceedings are televised; when verbatim reports are flung around the world via the Internet virtually minutes after they are spoken. But maybe we need little reminders that parliamentary democracy was as hard a won thing as the freedom of the press to write about it. We media types need to remind ourselves that while we have earned the right to criticize the institution and its inhabitants, we also have the responsibility to defend its ancient right to make the rules which govern daily proceedings and define standards of conduct and dress, and protect the institution itself from interference, whether by an attention seeker wearing a clown suit or a Royal wearing a crown.

Parliament is supreme, not the press. It makes its own rules from dress code to procedure – and authorizes the Speaker to make sure they are carried out. And it has the power to punish those who choose to challenge its authority.

Many readers will remember the incident during Premier Bill Bennett’s government (1975-1986) when the RCMP, with an approved court order, bugged the telephones in cabinet minister Jim Nielsen’s legislature office, his constituency office and his home – and how all hell broke loose when the bugging was discovered.

Motions were made accusing the RCMP of showing contempt for the legislature. A committee was struck to investigate, and it was agreed that the RCMP, even though acting under a court-approved wiretap, was indeed “in breach of parliamentary privilege.” In more recent times, the highest judicial authority in Canada has ruled that the internal workings of parliament are for parliament alone to decide. And that goes for everything from dress code to rules relating to contempt of the legislative assembly.

The centuries have brought many parliament-press compromises, but it should never be forgotten that when we asked fellow citizens to take a seat in our legislature, we gave them our iron-clad guarantee that they could go about their business without impediment; that they were free to speak without fear of retribution or interference and free to establish whichever rules they thought best for good conduct. Those who report on parliamentary affairs must choose carefully between criticism and contempt. Criticism should be tolerated, always encouraged; contempt, which could threaten the foundations of parliamentary rights and privileges, should always be denied.

Twenty years ago, Christopher Jones writing about “the Press Gallery” in his book The Great Palace said: “Both ladies and gentlemen of the Press are still there strictly against the rules, for those thunderous resolutions which say it is a high crime for the Press to intermeddle with Parliament are still, theoretically, in operation. In 1971, the House did finally decide that although they would not actually enforce the rules, neither would they scrap them. Journalists, therefore, remain part of Parliament, but not in Parliament. It is a compromise both sides find works very well indeed.”

And should continue to work well as long as it is understood who makes the rules and has the untrammeled right to enforce them. Which means that, while I find the dress code a little stuffy, I’ll wear a jacket and tie.

When The Last Train To Town Was 10pm

When 90 stalwart citizens gathered at city hall on a damp February evening in 1906 to consider a proposal that Victoria, British Columbia was now ready and willing to form a branch of the burgeoning Canadian Club, it was a group in a hurry.

Not because there was any desperate need to get Victoria draped in new Canadian national finery, but because as the chairman for the evening explained as he called the meeting to order … “many in attendance had already purchased tickets for a Victoria Musical Society concert scheduled that same evening at the Victoria Theatre with famed violinist Arthur Hartman,” the featured attraction being accompanied by Adolphe Borshke on piano.

I mentioned that concert in my blog a short time ago quoting The Daily Colonist review of Hartman’s performance. It is worth repeating with the added information that the crowd of 90, having elected a club president and executive, then rushed over to the theatre to hear Mr. Hartman “playing selections from the wailing melodies of the Russian steppes and the strangely similar folk songs of the Indians (East or West not known) … all perfectly interpreted to a large audience whose enthusiasm increased with each number. The audience was held in breathless attention and accorded applause of a volume that has not been exceeded in the history of this city.”

There was a wonderful footnote to the review. It read: “Adolphe Borschke showed an almost equal command of the piano.” Yes, well, what’s the old saying about faint praise?

Tickets, by the way, were 50 cents and $1.50 – the same price as tickets for the next Victoria Theatre production of “Susan In Search of a Husband” and a week later, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” – a musical extravaganza featuring two brass bands, ponies, bloodhounds, wagons drawn by handsome Shetland ponies, beautiful electrical effects PLUS EVE AND HER GOLDEN CHARIOT (capital letters in all the adverts). And, it could all be seen for free in a street parade before the show. I searched the files but never could find an explanation of the role EVE played in helping Eliza cross the ice.

The 90 founders of Victoria Canadian Club needed all the theatre entertainment they could afford in the winter of its birth. The Daily Colonist tells us the winter of 1906-07 was “bitter” with several feet of snow and severe delivery problems. No worries over still-to-be-invented, installed, toppled hydro power poles; no natural gas pipelines to be disturbed by landslides or protests.

With homes and businesses heated by wood stoves and furnaces, Victorians had wisely stockpiled enough wood and coal to keep themselves warm – but only as long as it could be delivered.

Once the snows climbed beyond a few inches in 1906-07, delivery failed. Ice bedded beneath snow made it impossible for natural horse-power to haul coal or wood, and the internal combustion automobile with all its evils was still a virtual unknown.

Victoria survived, as does still the Canadian Club. And, theatre and arts continue to entertain – not that we haven’t lost a few valuable qualities of life with the passage of the years. But this is not a lament for the loss of “the good old days” when some citizens had to occasionally break up and burn furniture to keep the kitchen stove generating warmth.

But it is to regret that, with all the comforts we expect and demand today, we have let slip away some comforts we once treasured –

lost by bad government decisions or our own carelessness.

We can read in the newspapers of the day that in the winter of 1906-07, “Colwood and Langford Lakes were deep frozen with special trains running from Victoria to Langford to accommodate the skaters, with the last train home at 10 p.m.” (Do I hear you whisper Colwood crawl?)

The Colonist waxed lyrical: “The scene in the late afternoon was exceedingly pretty, for the sunset, visible over the tall fir trees, almost equalled any to be seen in Italy and this all with the effect caused by the glow of many campfires against the dazzling white of the snow. Every rank of life from town was represented in the happy throng.”

When the snow disappeared, the people switched to special theatre entertainments and “BC Electric ran special trams to the Japanese Tea Gardens on the Gorge and doubled the schedule for the Gorge Festival.” Of the event, the Colonist reported, “the green foliage of the pine trees was lighted by numerous festoons of electric bulbs, here and there booths gaily illuminated with Chinese lanterns at which ladies – immaculately clad in white – dispensed flowers, candies and other commodities to eager buyers while in the background played the band of the Fifth Regiment.”

I wrote about the Gardens last week and the recent decision of Esquimalt Council to consider restoration of the Japanese Gardens as a future project. I hope they do and that I live long enough to catch a BC Transit bus out there and back.

“Never again” Over a Cup of Tea

“It was a military necessity,” Ottawa said when it coldly, calmly, arbitrarily, confiscated the right of Japanese Canadians to own property after Japan attacked the USA Pacific fleet based at Pearl Harbour.

That December 7, 1941 attack touched off a panic reaction in the western states and all too soon slopped over the 49th parallel where a large commercial fishing fleet operated between Victoria in the south, Prince Rupert in the north and a multitude of smaller ports between.

Not all the fishing boats were owned and operated by Japanese Canadians, but many were – and for every one of them was a whispered conjecture that when at sea they would make wonderful spy ships for a Japanese navy.

In fear, the USA was organizing the controlled eviction of citizens of Japanese ancestry from all coastal areas. Their new government controlled “camps” were not called prisons; just “controlled.”

In Canada, Japanese families were treated much the same. Individual fishing boat owners were stripped of ownership and their vessels sold at giveaway prices while they and their families were shipped to “camps” in the Interior.

It was not just fishermen who suffered from the heavy hand of a panicked government.

One Japanese Canadian who had his life’s work and achievements seized was Mr. Eikichi Kagetsu. He was active in the forest industry, owned a railway and marine industry developments including an oyster farm. He lost it all; dispossessed by decree based on unfounded assumptions.

The detailed story of Mr. Kagetsu is now part of what is described as “the massive archive and oral histories” being collected by the University of Victoria Landscape of Injustice research program in co-operation with the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby.

They have set 2021 as the year they hope to have a touring exhibit ready to show the world.

It will undoubtedly contain a section on Esquimalt’s once famous Japanese Teahouse – Canada’s first Japanese garden and teahouse located in what is now Esquimalt Gorge Park. It was opened in 1907 by brothers Hayato and Kensuke Takata and operated successfully until 1942 when they were both interned.

Writing recently for UVic News (http.//www.uvic.ca/news/topics/2018+Japanese-teahouse-gorge+news) Stephanie Harrington describes the old teahouse at its best and at its vandal destroyed demise. “It took 35 years to nurture the tea gardens, which opened in 1907, and mere months to destroy what the brothers had built.”

Which brings me in my own convoluted way to an announcement by Esquimalt municipal council Council that it is considering building a new Japanese Tea Garden on the old site. A good idea and a fitting reminder of what can happen in the finest of nations when racism runs riot in defiance of logic and basic decency. Leaning on expertise available at UVic or the Mikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre and true to tradition the Japanese Tea Garden “with hundreds of Japanese lanterns hung throughout grounds dotted with bonsai and cherry trees” could be reborn.

A place for calm conversations during which we can acknowledge past failures of our government and we, the people of the day who raised no objections at the time but now pledge “never again” over a good cup of tea.

Flowers Are Not The Answer

Flowers are not the answer. Not in small bunches stuck in fences or piled high in ever-growing mini-mountains of dying stalks and once bright blossoms.

Thousands of flowers marking the sites of 21st Century massacres and all placed reverently but untidily with messages of love and respect by people for people they never met, never knew.

Most of the floral tributes carry messages of goodwill for the victims of the latest barbaric execution. At the time of this writing, the most recent slaughter occurred a week ago in Christchurch, New Zealand, but given the current state of insanity in the world – heaven forbid – it could have been equalled or surpassed by now.

New Zealand, population around four million, is roughly the same size as the Canadian province of British Columbia. It is a peaceful country boasting no poisonous snakes or other dangerous wildlife and possessing a natural beauty that matches or surpasses any other country in the world. It is not hard to find travellers who endorse those claims – and the more important one that New Zealanders, whether native Maori or more recent immigrant stock, have created a most hospitable nation.

The national response to the tragedy that saw 50 New Zealanders executed while at prayer was a lesson to other nations, great and small, on how to handle a major crisis without creating panic in the general population.

The first-responder reaction was swift, culminating in the arrest of the Australian gunman. The arrest is significant because for us in Canada, who see all too often similar mass shootings in the USA, rarely is the assassin taken alive.

It was a time of high emotion, a time when the smallest of verbal sparks could create an explosive crowd reaction.

Within hours of the mass killing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, 38, called a press conference to address the nation. It was a classic act of leadership and quite Churchillian in tone. Blunt from the outset, she quickly mastered the quaver in her voice to earn a headline in The Guardian newspaper: “Real leaders do exist: Jacinda Ardern uses solace and steel to guide a broken nation.”

The morning following the tragedy she was in Christchurch with, The Guardian tells us, “the majority of her cabinet ministers and opposition leaders, meeting with members of the Muslim community … She held them in her arms as they sobbed, whispering words of condolence and pressing her cheek against theirs.”

The following day, she was reporting to parliament with a tribute to the Muslim community. Her first words were in Arabic: “As-salaam-alaikum (Peace be upon you).” A silent house listened as she told them “one of the roles I never anticipated having and hoped never to have, is to voice the grief of a nation.”

She has never voiced the name of the shooter and says she never will. She urged others to do the same. “He sought notoriety … it was one of his goals … we will deny him that.” She hasn’t asked the media specifically to do the same, which is a pity because it controls the notoriety factor.

This brings me round-robin, back to flowers which have become a mandatory sign of caring when disasters major or minor occur in public places. I accept the fact that the people who buy the flowers and place them do so in kindness of heart – but I think they could deliver a better message.

PM Ardern listed an alternative when she named actions she was taking in the aftermath although she never mentioned floral tributes. She did tell survivors of the mass shooting that they would be supported financially if the need arose.

It was a comforting assurance, not as pretty as a bunch of roses, but far more practical and longer lasting.

On Friday, one week after the shootings shocked the nation, the PM called for a national day of prayerful remembrance. “We are broken hearted,” she told the world and her people, “but we are not broken.” The call to prayer was the traditional “adhan” made to every corner of New Zealand via national television and radio. The prime minister said she wanted survivors and the world to know “New Zealand mourns with you; we are one.”

And I am left wondering if Canada could find a similar voice, calm but defiant and reassuring in a time of a major national crisis? Or whom among our provincial leaders BC could confidently follow through and beyond adversity .

An Immigrant – But Not a Pioneer

I was chatting with a new immigrant to Canada a few days ago; one who had arrived in Victoria in 2018. She felt she was adjusting reasonably well to a new job and making new friends in a new neighbourhood in a new country.

“But it hasn’t always been an easy year,” she said. “When did you come out?”

“June 1948,” I replied.

“Wow! You were a real pioneer. How did you get here?”

It wasn’t the first time I had been “admired” for being a post-war pioneer, nor the first time I had explained that while five days on an ocean liner, then five on a giant trans-continental train got a little wearing towards the end, it was luxury travel when compared with the covered wagons and carts of the real sod-busting pioneers.

British Columbia was well-established by the time I got here, but it hadn’t always been “British” – although the Brits had been poking around the coast since 1579. According to the late Salt Spring Island author Sam Bawlf, Francis Drake – later Sir Francis – circumnavigated Vancouver Island, reached the Queen Charlottes (now Haida Gwaii), then sailed back south via the Inside Passage making landfall at Campbell River and Nanaimo and declaring all the land north of what is now San Francisco to be “New Albion.”

But Drake was more interested in pirating Spanish treasure ships loaded with silver en route to the Royal Court of Spain than establishing wilderness outposts, so he left the Northwest to the Spaniards.

By the 1700s, Spain was the principal power with small outposts dotting the coast and one large one at Nootka here on Vancouver Island under the administration of one Bodega Quadra, and, for a few years, under a Spanish army captain named Don Pedro Alberni. Both are well remembered in the naming of Quadra Island, Quadra Street, the Alberni Canal and Valley and the twin cities of Port Alberni and Alberni, now amalgamated.

It was with Quadra that British Captain George Vancouver eventually negotiated the transfer of ownership of what the Spaniards called New Spain to the British. Quadra’s and Vancouver’s island became British and thus part of Drake’s New Albion. Spain gave up all claims of land between the Pacific Northwest and what was then Spanish California.

It would be close to another 200 years, 1858, before New Albion was officially named British Columbia by Queen Victoria … six years after the first street plan for Victoria and just four years before the City of Victoria was incorporated in 1862.

My “new immigrant” asked what happened to the native tribes living here when Spain, then England, claimed the land for their royal patrons and masters.

“They’re still here,” I said. “Still trying to get at least some of their land back.”

“I didn’t know that,” she replied.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “A lot of British Columbian’s don’t know or don’t care to know. It all happened in the real pioneer days when the white people seriously believed they were a superior race.”

Victoria was growing up from a tent city to a fort to a frontier town to a sophisticated city in the early 1900s. At least, that’s how it was portrayed in the pages of the Colonist … the oldest newspaper in Canada west of Winnipeg.

As the new century took hold, men and women – real pioneers on the edge of the known world – yearned for touches of the civilized world they had left.

In Victoria, a musical society was created and brought to the frontier the most famous violinist of the era, Arthur Hartman, who played to a sold-out audience in the Victoria Theatre.

The following day, the Colonist waxed eloquently in praise of Mr. Hartman’s “playing of selections from the wailing melodies of the Russian steppes and the strangely similar folk songs of the Indians … all perfectly interpreted to a large audience whose enthusiasm increased with each number. The audience was held in breathless attention and accorded applause of a volume that has not been exceeded in the history of this city …”

With not a dry eye in the house or a native in the audience.

The Right to Know

It is the mantra of media: “The right to know.” The hymn every reporter and editor sing when probing questions are being asked; when “confidential” government reports are being pried loose, begged, borrowed or glowingly welcomed in plain brown paper envelopes.

“The right to know,” sometimes sung with religious fervour, sometimes bayed like hounds on the hunt for a politician wounded by allegations of scandal and ripe to be brought down and savaged.

Pure in the search for truth and justice, “the right to know” is battle cry, shield and protector against all who would brand editorial writers and reporters slavering jackals and enemies of “the people” and columnists like yours truly as “they who come down from the hills after the battle is over and bayonet the wounded.”

It hasn’t always been this way. Back in August 2003, I wrote a column on the findings of a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) meeting in February in Perth, Australia, to discuss Parliament and the Media, with “the right to know” a high priority. Its findings – Recommendations for an Informed Democracy – were surprisingly free of harsh criticism of the media, and courteously understanding of the role of the press in a free society.

Far more, understanding, I suggested, than we in the press were of the politicians we bayonet.

There was a clear recognition by the politicians that a public figure automatically sacrifices much of the private life the rest of us cherish. The study declared: “The public’s right to know must be balanced against the individual’s right to privacy – which must sometimes be sacrificed by public figures to the extent that their private lives impinge on their public roles. The responsible determination of the balance between the public’s legitimate right to know and public curiosity is a matter for the media initially (then) for the public itself, and if necessary, ultimately for the independent judiciary.”

Clearly, politicians recognize their loss of privacy; equally clearly, they place a heavy responsibility on the press to differentiate between “the public’s legitimate right to know” and prurient “public curiosity” which all too often dominates coverage of events involving political personalities. To both sides, the CPA study group sent the reminder that there should always be an “independent judiciary” from which to seek a ruling.

The government of British Columbia has just moved into that judicial zone with a request to a retired but “independent judiciary” to sort out accusations and denials in what might be titled the Speaker Plecas affair which led to the suspension of Clerk Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz.

The CPA study findings and recommendations were forwarded to all Commonwealth members with the aforementioned decision in BC being an indication that the CPA recommendations registered here.

The Commonwealth parliamentarians pushed beyond the “right to know” and “public curiosity” into the much harder-to-decide issues when “the public interest” clashes with “the national interest.” The SNC-Lavalin issue springs to mind as the fixed photo-op smile on PM Justin Trudeau fades to sunset frown.

The CPA solution, now 16 years old but still worth listening to: “When ‘the public interest’ is claimed by government to be in conflict with the demand for secrecy in ‘the national interest’, the determination of what constitutes ‘the national interest” and when it should take precedence over the ‘public interest’ should be assigned by law to the courts.” If adopted, that recommendation would strip governments of the all too often used safety blanket of political expediency – the blanket the PMO now appears to be reaching for.

A few other thoughts from the CPA under the heading Freedom of Expression: “The media’s right to criticize and express opinion, as well as to report, must be guaranteed and no legislation should be passed which impinges on that right.”

The study recommends serious due diligence and considerations by all politicians for media rights before launching libel lawsuits but acknowledges that sometimes such suits may be justified. But, if they are, and if the courts rule libel and/or defamation have been proven, the CPA study urges the courts to be careful when assessing damages because “excessive or disproportionate levels of damages in legal actions have a chilling effect on free speech and should be discouraged” – for which all media workers say “thank you, we’ll try to be kinder.”

And, should we – writer or politician – ever have to apologize, may our regrets be as skillful as those offered by Irish politician R.B. Sheridan who said, when asked to say he was sorry for calling a fellow MP a liar: “Mr. Speaker. I said the honourable member was a liar it is true and I am sorry for it. The honourable member may place the punctuation where he pleases.”

A Weary Road For Justice

It took seven years, but a pair of Saskatchewan businessmen have finally won their claim to have been wrongfully accused of workplace misdemeanours and fired “for cause” on Jan. 20, 2012.

I’m raising the matter here in Victoria, a few thousand kilometres from Saskatoon, only because the prairie fire that sparked that seven-year-old war of words appears to be breaking anew on Vancouver Island. The backdrop is a little different as are the occupations of the lead players – but the events that led to their arbitrary removal from important jobs have key similarities, and flash warning signals from the prairie-past to those who walk a similarly hazardous Vancouver Island trail today.

William Antonishyn, 62, and Brian Swidrovich, 56, were senior managers with Credit Union Centre. The company is now known as SaskTelCentre. In a story published Feb. 26, 2019, Saskatoon Star Phoenix reporter Andrea Hill tells us in 2011 the year before their firing, Antonishyn and Swidrovich had earned a little more than $100.000.

The Star Phoenix states the charge leading to their dismissal claimed the pair “had inappropriately expended nearly $8,000 on a trip to Arizona with the organization’s outgoing executive director in the fall of 2011. Expenses included airfare, meals, drinks, golf and tickets to an Arizona Cardinals football game.”

Through their lawyer, Larry Seiferling, the pair launched a wrongful dismissal suit arguing the trip, and subsequent agenda had been company arranged. Lawyers for the company argued at trial there was no legitimate reason for the trip; that it was not approved by a new director or the board of directors, and that Antonishyn and Swidrovich should have known better than to attend.

Justice Richard Elson rejected the argument. The Star Phoenix reports that prior to the hiring of a new director – (hired after the Arizona trip was planned) – the management team was given “a relatively free hand” in deciding how to make the centre successful and had gone on similar trips with no repercussions.

In British Columbia, Speaker Darryl Plecas has touched off an explosive debate on what he and his once special advisor, now reporting as his chief of staff, regard as a litany of reckless public spending which could prove to be criminal. As a result of those charges, the BC Legislature suspended Senior Clerk of the House Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz from their duties pending a fact-finding inquiry by a retired judge.

James and Lenz have been granted limited time to defend their actions in early proceedings but insist they are all legal and explainable. All they can do is wait – and hope the investigating Judge will clear their names and eliminate the need to launch further legal action claiming wrongful dismissal. 

In upholding the claim that Antonishyn and Swidrovich had been fired without just cause, Justice Elson said he understood new standards had been introduced in the workplace, but they couldn’t be applied retrospectively. “I find it questionable for (a new director) to have retrospectively applied his own standards to practices that existed well before he arrived on the scene.”

The two men will receive between $250,000 to $300,000 each in compensation. Their lawyer says some consideration is being given to appealing the lack of compensation for moral and punitive damage in the court decision.

“I’ve just got to look at whether the amount for the years that these people have suffered and waited is correct. At the end of the day, they are happy that they finally got the court to say they didn’t do anything wrong, but there’s still some sense of frustration with the process – with the length of time and the fact that your life can be ruined by something like this.”

How long will the BC epic lurch along? No bets, but the Saskatchewan case, simple in comparison, took seven years to settle and left several battered personal lives in its wake.

There has to be a better way.

I Think Pogo Just Rolled His Eyes

Sitting on my desk between two computer terminals is a delightful porcelain miniature of Pogo, the wonderful philosopher created by Walt Kelly. On his head, just above apologetic eyes, there’s a small bird’s nest with a tiny bluebird resident, presumably chirping merrily.

He’s been sitting on my desk, encouraging or chastising me, since the late 1950s when I was managing editor of the Penticton Herald. He was a gift from a charming reader who had talked her way past various front office secretaries “to speak personally to the editor or the person who writes the editorials.”

Having finally reached where I was sitting, she presented me with a splendid Walt Kelly “made in Ireland” Pogo. She hoped it would inspire me from time to time, and “above all else remind you that sometimes you write like a bird brain.”

Then, with the brightest of smiles, she was gone, and Pogo was left with his mournful eyes to offer me a choice – stuff him in a desk drawer or leave him as a staring desk reminder that readers should always be respected.

He’s been working overtime these past two or three weeks when I have devoted blogs to what I call the Speaker Plecas file which has touched off primeval upheavals in the Legislature. And each time I wrote, a Pogo glance reminded me we had walked this road before and survived a situation which saw a high-ranking public servant turfed from office with heavy-handed and occasionally, ill-timed interventions.

It was on February 15, 1956, that George Ernest Pascoe Jones was appointed Chairman of the BC Purchasing Commission and “in charge of all supplies needed in the public service.” Eight years later, on October 2, 1964, Jones was charged “with unlawful acceptance of benefits in his capacity as chairman.” The same day, an Order in Council was passed to relieve Jones of all duties related to the Commission. To the consternation of then Premier W.A.C. Bennett’s government, Jones refused to vacate his office. He had been appointed to hold office during good behaviour and was removable only by the Lieutenant Governor “on address of the Legislative Assembly.”

Little more than two months later on Jan. 15, 1965, the criminal charges were dropped, after a trial in Victoria County Court. The Attorney General appealed the acquittal but “on motion by the plaintiff (it was) stricken out as frivolous and vexatious.”

We wouldn’t allow that today, would we? Frivolous and vexatious behaviour; people suspended from their duties because someone suspected them of misbehaving, and then left to dangle for weeks with accusations backed by flashy rhetoric and only minimal defence permitted.

Last Thursday (Feb 21,2019) Speaker Plecas touched off his latest string of explosive misdemeanours and announced that he was now ready to step aside and let a Management Committee appointee make a full scale inquiry into what has become a sorry mess of real and/or imagined “vexatious” behaviour. The local newspaper quotes Speaker Plecas as saying “If this weren’t so serious it would be the stuff of comedy.”

Yes, indeed, but frankly from where the public sits most of the lead players already appear to be humming the “bring on the clowns” chorus or chanting “stir up strife, stir up trouble” with the ladies of Endor.

I have been reminded that those making charges today should be sure they do not finish up as the government accusers of G.E.P. Jones finished up when push came to shove. In the final Supreme Court of Canada appeal the court found in favour of Jones with a terse but telling note that the defendant in the case – Premier W.A.C. Bennett – “never publicly gave any explanation or any reason for retiring and removing the plaintiff from office at any time, either in the Legislative Assembly or outside the Legislative Assembly.”

Last Thursday Speaker Plecas said he thought the time had come for him to step back and “let someone other than me be making comment.” Some critics might suggest he should have stepped back when he caught the first whispers of deception and discontent, reported his concerns to the Attorney General and remained well clear of the rough and tumble of political debate.

But better late than never and far better that a final judgment should be arrived at in a quiet, thoughtful conference room rather than yammered out with spitting rhetoric in the political trenches. Time to get accusers and accused in this drama out of the Legislature to a place where wheat and chafe can be quickly separated.

Time to get the Speaker out of the trenches and onto his elevated throne where “the House” expects him to “preserve order and decorum and decide questions of order” while reminding members that “no debate shall be permitted on any decision. No decision shall be subject to an appeal to the House.”

It should be interesting to watch the final scenes play out. Will Speaker Plecas step away from his powerful title for the duration of the final act? Or will he “preserve decorum but stay out of the debate?” He may already have anticipated a problem in that regard.

On Thursday the Times Colonist quoted him as saying: “House leaders will decide if confidence in these two officers (James and Lenz) has been undermined to the point that regardless of the outcome of further processes, audits and investigations Mr.James and Mr.Lenz cannot realistically return to their positions as senior executives of the Legislative Assembly.”

I think my Irish Pogo, just rolled his eyes.

Sometimes What You Don’t Say Can Defame

Everything looked shipshape in the great debating chamber. Speaker Darryl Plecas, stern of face; arms – elbow to hands resting on broad chair arms; eyes flickering over rows of slowly filling chairs as members of the BC Legislature take their seats.

Slowly the chamber fills, conversations drop to murmurs and then silence, as Speaker Plecas calls for the prayer that marks each daily opening ceremony. It is 1:35 pm, Feb. 16, 2019, and all is as calm and bright as the Christmas carol that we stopped singing a few weeks back. And prayers have never been more needed.

There have been a few changes to the cast routinely on stage for these opening days of a new legislative session. A Deputy Clerk has replaced Craig James in the processional of the Speaker from his office to his throne of authority and Sergeant at Arms Gary Lenz has been replaced as the bearer of the golden mace.

Those two senior officials have been suspended – with pay – pending investigation of suspicions of careless control of public spending – or worse. Speaker Plecas has made public a list of his concerns; the RCMP is investigating; accountants are doing “deeper audits.”

James and Lenz were given a tight time frame to review the Plecas list. And, at this writing, they remain uncharged as the 41st Parliament gets underway with bucolic calm covering nasty clouds of suspicion critics cannot or dare not name.

Under the dome of Belleville Street, it is not unknown for exaggerated office gossip to be wrong and lead to injustice.

Back in 1964, a gentleman named George Ernest Pascoe Jones was Chairman of the Provincial Purchasing Commission. On Oct. 2, 1964, the government laid criminal charges alleging unlawful acceptance of benefits, and on the same day, an Order in Council was passed designed to relieve Jones from all his duties with the Commission “until further notice.”

Mr. Jones politely refused to vacate his office. A few months went by, and on Feb 25, 1965, the Provincial Secretary introduced a bill entitled An Act to Provide for the Retirement of George Ernest Pascoe Jones. It became law by assent a month later on March 26, 1965.

Three weeks before, on March 5th, Premier W.A.C. Bennett had delivered a “state of the province” speech to Social Credit Party faithful had avoided detailed reference to the long running Jones affair. All he had for his followers was: “I am not going to talk about the Jones boy. I could say a lot, but let me just assure you of this; the position that the government has taken is the right position.”

And George Ernest Pascoe Jones (Jeep from initials GEP to his friends) sued Premier Bennett for slander. He won after a series of trials and appeals, and appeals of appeals. Jeep’s lawyer throughout the ordeal was Tom Berger.

Readers interested in every twist and turn can find them at Supreme Court of Canada, Jones v Bennett (1969) S.C.R. 277.

There is a lesson to be learned and remembered in the reasoning of the Justices that sometimes what you imply but don’t say can be as libelous as what you enunciate. Assumptions made but not based on solid foundations can be dangerous and cruel.

I have no idea how long it will take for the charges, truths, denials, hints, innuendos to lurch their way through the current public spending scandal to the truth, but it can’t be soon enough. It took two years give or take a day or two for “the Jones boy” to clear the courts and win a modest settlement.

While we wait I’m wondering how government workers are finding the on the job office environment? It should be a great place to work, but it can’t be a happy one when you don’t know if the guy or gal on the next desk is a conscience-driven whistleblower or conspiracy clone.

Time for government – and I mean every proudly entitled Member of the Legislative Assembly plus all holding a supervisory position in public service – to get this ship righted before already shaky morale from scuppers to bridge, brings fresh disasters.