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.

We Continue to Live in Interesting Times

Should be interesting next Tuesday when the BC Legislature opens a new session with a Throne Speech; the welcoming of a new NDP MLA elected in a Nanaimo byelection a week ago; and a Speaker held in awe by some as a whistleblower supreme but by others, a lot less than awe.

It is expected the ceremonial opening will unfold smoothly with any twinges of sympathy for two missing major players noted mentally but never mentioned, not even whispered. The absence of senior Clerk Craig James and Sergeant at Arms Gary Lenz will, for sure, be noted and maybe by some with sympathy as the two senior legislature officers continue to serve an arbitrary suspension from their duties – with pay.

They were relieved of their duties in January after in-house inquiries raised suspicions of wrong-doing in the mind of Speaker Darryl Plecas. Plecas later made public a list of what he felt were misdemeanours and reported the list had been handed to the RCMP and a police investigation was underway. He informed the Legislature and suspensions from duty quickly followed.

Liberal MLAs would later complain they had not been fully informed when they agreed to the suspensions. They expressed dismay at the timing which saw James and Lenz escorted from the Legislature while the House was in session – and without explanation as to why City of Victoria police officers were on hand to make sure they left their offices and the Legislature precinct quietly.

As of this writing, the two employees still have not been officially informed of why their evictions took place in the manner in which they occurred. However, they were given copies of the voluminous report made public by Speaker Plecas and instructed that they had a couple of weeks to respond. They did that on February 7 with a strong denial that they had done anything wrong.

Green Party leader Andrew Weaver has praised Plecas and his staff for their courage in digging out the scandals and making them public. He made no mention of the Canadian historic desire to always find people innocent of any charge before their trial and legal proof of guilt. In recent times the general populace seems to have edged back to more barbarous days. Over the past few days I have had old friends – sensible, kindly people – say of the Plecas report “well it must be true, or he wouldn’t have put all that stuff in.”

To hear people say “it must be true, otherwise they wouldn’t be accused” is astounding. To hear a political leader apparently voicing the same belief is frightening and must be challenged.

We may be wavering but we must never lose the belief that citizens remain innocent until proven guilty which should always be tightly knit with “the quality of mercy (that) is not strained./It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath./It is twice bless’d:/It blesseth him that gives and him that takes./‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes/The throned monarch better than his crown … But mercy is above this sceptred sway,/It is enthroned in the heart of kings,/It is an attribute of God himself;/And earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice./Though justice be thy plea, consider this,/That in the course of justice, none of us/Should see salvation: We do pray for mercy;/And that same prayer doth teach us all to render/The deeds of mercy.” (Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice)

We should be sure that the justice we – Speakers, MLAs, and ordinary folk – demand is graced with mercy and not contaminated with spite or revenge which, as the old saying goes, is a dish best served cold.

An appeal then to protesters or whistleblowers of all stripes. By all means, raise your voices and take action to expose what you feel is wrong – but make sure that in good conscience you do so with the mercy we all seek when we make mistakes.

As I said in my opening words it should be interesting next Tuesday when the Legislature opens. Normally Throne Speech Day is a day with ceremonial flags and bands, guns firing royal salutes and a government written speech of vague promises read by the Lieutenant Governor.

Colourful but not very exciting, Tuesday Feb.12,2019, could be the same old same old. But the current Legislature is a bit of a tinder box these days with Speaker Plecas in high dudgeon over expense claims and his two most senior officers, suspended Clerk James and Sergeant at Arms Lenz, in equally high dudgeon protesting false claims against them. James and Lenz remain “suspended” from their legislative duties so will presumably be forced to watch and monitor proceedings from afar.

Speaker Plecas will, again presumably, be in official presence ready to call “Order!” should such an unlikely call be required on Throne Speech Day. In BC you never know – and it would be interesting to watch a Speaker trying to cool down a rambunctious, flaming debate for which he had provided the spark.

The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same

It was a typical February day in Victoria. A storm system from the north brought what west coasters still cheerfully call “unsettled weather” which means gusty winds, heavy showers and temperatures around 40F with an all-around damp feeling.

In the final days of the month in 1900, Premier Charles Augustus Semlin was finding it difficult to hang on to power, and on February 27th, his shaky tenure ended when his “coalition” government lost a crucial “confidence” vote. Throughout a long wet and windy afternoon, Semlin tried desperately to stitch together another support group with which he could continue to govern, but without success. These were the days before party politics.

Semlin thought he had convinced Lieutenant Governor Thomas Robert McInnes to give him time to recruit a new team during a pre-midnight meeting, following a “secret” support gathering session earlier in the evening at the old Driard Hotel.

He was wrong. McInnes instead informed him he was fired and, in what might be called an “only in BC” moment, the 38-member Legislature challenged McInnes’ royal command and voted 22 to 15 to condemn his actions.

In response on February 28, McInnes asked MLA Joseph Martin if he could form a government. Martin, who had served in other provincial governments, on Vancouver City Council, and was a recent Member of Parliament in England, responded willingly.

McInnes informed the Governor General of Canada that MLA Martin “was best able to meet the necessity of the situation, create decisive issues, and establish final order and something like the usual conditions out of the chaos through which provincial parties had been rent.”

But the BC Legislative Assembly didn’t agree and another sparkling “only in BC” happening was chalked in the record book. When the Legislature was informed of McInnes’ arbitrary changes, the members voted 28-1 against the new government. 

Then came high drama. The Lieutenant Governor was already on his way to the Legislature to prorogue the current sitting and clear the way for the commencement of his Joe Martin era. As McInnes entered the chamber, all but two members marched out. By the time McInnes had walked to the dais from which he would address the Assembly, only the Speaker and the newly-minted Premier Martin remained to greet him.

McInnes delivered his speech and, historian S.W. Jackman tells us, then “left the chamber with boos and catcalls resounding in his ears; 28 February 1900, was a memorable day in Victoria for the whole customary constitutional establishment had collapsed. Respect for authority had gone, and discourtesy to the Lieutenant Governor had become the accepted code of conduct.”

There were “aftershock” repercussions. Martin’s tenure lasted only 106 days. He was replaced by James Dunsmuir in June 1900. Edward Gawler Prior took over in 1902. Then came the sea change in BC politics; the1903 election was the first run on party lines with five political parties – Conservative, Labour, Liberal, Socialist Labour and Socialist Party of BC – with 95 candidates in the race for 42 seats. The premiership would go to the leader of the party winning the most seats – providing he won his own.

In 1903, it was Dewdney’s Sir Richard McBride who had been an MLA since 1898 and brought with his royal recognition the all too rarely found “common touch and common sense” of understanding. He was called “the people’s premier.”

Other changes resulting from the Semlin-Martin scuffles and questionable decisions of L-G McInnes saw McInnes quietly removed from office and replaced by Sir Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbiniere whose claim to fame today rests solely in the dignity and respect he brought to his position and the small street that still bears his name.

And politics remain much like the weather “unsettled” with blustery winds, some heavy rain showers, and intermittent but glorious sunshine.

Money and/or Morals

Could we just pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and ask who is responsible for the shambles at our harbourside BC Legislature? I’m sure you’ve been reading about high-flying expenditures on travel accounts, $1,000 suits, and special hats for the Speaker of the Legislature.

Years ago, during the Dave Barrett era, then-Speaker Gordon Dowding often joked about his “new three-cornered hat” and the difficulty the hat maker had shaping it to “my three-cornered head.” But, those were days when we heard as much laughter in the House as we did angry exchanges.

Today – these past few days anyway – our political world has been seething with rebukes, teeming accusations of strange purchases, mysterious expense account claims and political leaders, who should know better, vowing to keep two men – Clerk Craig James and Sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz – suspended from their duties, however long the inquiry into their guilt – or innocence – may take.

Andrew Weaver says he’s “livid”; that the conduct of the two men is “absolutely abhorrent.” If true.

Ah yes, those two words are always important.

The accusations of guilt roll off our tongues easily. Writers of letters to the editor know no shame when they echo the old cry “give ‘em a fair trial, but hang ‘em in the morning.”

I am all for punishment that fits the crime. But, I can wait for the guilt to be declared before the execution.

I think we need to voice a few unspoken observations, like asking Mike Farnworth, Andrew Weaver – the Green mouse that roared – and Speaker Darryl Plecas himself, how he and the man he hired – Alan Mullen – got to be accusers in the issue.

Speaker Plecas tells part of the tale in his long denunciation list. He recalls the day when he became aware that one of the perks of his new job was the authority to hire an “advisor.” He wrote: “I was finding the Legislature an unusual place and I was feeling uncertain about who I could trust – and the prospect of having an advisor of my own choosing was attractive.”

So, he turned to his old friend Mullen who had worked as a prosecutor in the BC Penitentiary where Plecas worked as a judge. “I came to know him as trustworthy and competent, and we became professionally acquainted, and stayed in touch after work in the prison justice system.”

Nothing wrong with that unless we wonder what experience both men could bring to the Office of Speaker.

The maze called “parliamentary procedures in British Columbia” is not mastered overnight, but for the past year or so, we have had in that key position a Speaker with a “special advisor” on the tough side of a learning curve.

How did Plecas get the high paying, prestigious job? Quite simple: he applied for it. New Democrats and Greens couldn’t apply because the loss of a vote would change the balance of power. The Liberals in caucus agreed they wouldn’t apply, but then Plecas quit the Liberal caucus and quite legally grabbed the golden ring as the only person reaching for it.

The enmity will last for some time.

As noted earlier, Plecas admitted he wasn’t comfortable in his new position, but he did get to have some friendly chats with his Sergeant-at-arms Lenz. who, says Plecas, on occasion warned that Clerk James tended to favour Liberals when he should have been neutral in all matters.

And, now we wait while lawyers and police officers work it out. It’s a pity that legendary Ted Hughes isn’t available for yet another bout for truth and justice. Ted is still active of mind and bright to the challenge, but I don’t think he would want another marathon.

Then again, if somebody were to ask, maybe Ted could recommend someone of like mind to sift the wheat from the truckloads of corn we’re getting. It would be nice, at the end of the road, to find out how many of the key players were in today’s game as they all claim – for the people, and how many for the power and the money.

No Need For Tergiversation

It shouldn’t be long now before Speaker Darryl Plecas presents the people of British Columbia with the long list of “certain activities that were taking place within the Legislative Assembly.” He made the promise of full disclosure during a speech to the Legislature Management Committee in early December last year, when trying to explain the immediate suspension, with pay, of Legislature Clerk Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz.

Both men were informed of their suspension while on duty, with TV news camera on hand to record their escorted eviction by a City of Victoria police officer and a member of Speaker Plecas’ office staff.

James and Lenz have never been publicly informed of the specific charges against them or the reasons for their middle-of-the-day removal from their offices and the legislative precinct.

In his explanation of events to the committee, Plecas said he was sorry he couldn’t provide the details leading to his dramatic actions because they had been handed to the police, and “as the matter is now before the police it would not be appropriate for me to comment on this matter any further.”

He then proceeded to lecture MLAs and senior staff members on his duty to taxpayers and how diligent he had been in fulfilling his responsibilities for security and “anything I think is inappropriate in terms of spending.” He proclaimed – with Donald Trump style bombast – that detailed information would never be “buried” while he was Speaker “… there will never, ever, be anything buried here. Never.”

With that promise made, he proposed another meeting of the management committee, “at which I will give you a long laundry list of my concerns” and “I will be proposing a full audit on the Speaker’s office … you will get every detail of how much I spent. You want full disclosure … the public deserves full disclosure – boy, are they going to get it.”

He didn’t mention Auditor General Carol Bellringer’s recent examination and passing grade approval of departmental spending. Nor did he mention that, with the next committee meeting set for later this month, and with this month running out faster than a police probe can proceed, he may be forced to bury his laundry list for a while longer – a week or two, possibly forever.

Then again, if he and his aide Alan Mullen are entirely sure they can prove skullduggery, minor or major, don’t they have a duty to say why they hold that belief? Now?

I have other suggestions for Speaker Plecas. When the House is in session, he holds the most important of tasks – to bring order out of the chaos to which a democratic house can quickly dissolve; calmly, and without fear, favour or enmity to any political party or individual politician. He is the person who brings quiet to the storms, not the one who joins back-alley conspiracy talk.

He administers the rules made and shaped by the Members. But, he is not the master of the house; just its humble servant. Or should be.

Back in the early 1900s, the BC Legislature was bumbling through tumultuous times – and this was before political parties ruled to form government or opposition. Historian S. W. Jackman, in his Portraits of the Premiers (John Foster McCreight 1871 to WAC Bennett 1952), describes BC politics from 1900 to 1910 as being in a stage of “complicated tergiversation.”

Don’t worry; I had to look it up, too. I chose the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Tergiversation: evasion of straightforward action or clear-cut statement; equivocation; desertion of a cause, position, party, or faith.

Example: What Mullen discovered and reported to Plecas “could be potentially criminal.” Plecas’ response when Liberals requested more info on the possibility of fraud: “I never mentioned fraud. Just checking the books doesn’t necessarily follow you’re talking about fraud whatsoever.”

A final word from Mike Farnworth, NDP House leader, who suggests the Liberals are just making political hay and could be hindering the work of the RCMP and the two special prosecutors hired to check the whispers and the whisperers. “We are going to continue to respect the work of the police.”

Fine. Any chance New Democrats could also find, let alone continue, some respect for the work and reputations of a couple of senior and once trusted employees until they are found guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt of any crime?

If Only He Had Meant It When He Said Goodbye

Oh, if only he had meant it when he said ‘bye-bye’. The world would have become a safer place with the United States of America taking a giant step to restoring the respect it once held among world leaders.

If just for once, the loose lips of President Donald Trump had voiced a pertinent truth that we could have rejoiced with a haunting chorus of “What a wonderful world,” but, alas, he didn’t.

Instead of voicing sincere words of a man reflecting thoughts of angels, he launched what he thought was a fiery demand: that the United States Congress give him $5.7 billion to build a wall across a large portion of its southern boundary with Mexico.

The answer was a resounding “No,” and the meeting to discuss ways and means of solving current immigration problems and more efficient border control was over, 14 minutes after it began.

If there had ever been real hope of a solution, it vanished with the petulant Trump response, “then I have nothing to say, ‘bye, ‘bye!”, echoing around the world like so many other utterances – sounding brass and tinkling cymbals signifying nothing.

The world has become accustomed to President Trump’s braggadocios TV reality show attitudes. So, unfortunately, have too many of the Republican Party leaders who could quickly bring him to heel but don’t because they fear being accused of “leaning left” if they agree to anything Democrats advocate.

It’s a strange attitude for a wide-open democracy like the United States to display – a fear that any time the government “of the people and for the people” extends a helping hand to unfortunate fellow citizens by way of heath care assistance or financial support, they are moving ever closer to socialism, which, in their minds, is half a step from communism.

It was the Republican Party’s duo of Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon who led the “better dead than red” cold war campaign through the 1940s and 1950s and brought many men and their families to ruin and or disgrace with skimpy or phony charges of anti-American activities.

We seem to have come full circle today with the President, supported by inner circle power brokers, seeking closer connections and friendly business ties with communist Russia and North Korea while expressing red peril fears as if national health care schemes and livable wages are threats to democracy.

It’s a funny world made less than humorous by the man elected President of the United States of America who promised on election victory night: “Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division. It is time for us to come together as one united people. It’s time.”

He then proceeded to demand that only he and his ideas could unite the nation. His vanity, at least, was boundless and wild. He clearly fits both dictionary definitions of the word, but subscribes personally to only: “Vanity: Excessive pride one’s own appearance or achievements.”

The second he has not yet grasped: “Vanity: The quality of being worthless or futile. The vanity of human wishes.”

If he ever does, it could be the day when he again says ‘bye-bye’ and means it. Hallelujah!

Young Adults Will Prevail

If you think land and house prices are at runaway record levels, you should have been around for the gold rush in 1858.

Recent percentage increases in property values have brought understandable laments from young wage earners that property values are now so high only young couples with rich and kindly parents can afford to buy even a modest starter house. That’s more or less what young couples were saying in Victoria in 1862 when property values skyrocketed an average 75 per cent in nine months – with even higher peaks to follow.

It all started in April 1858 when the good ship Commodore unloaded the first wave of Fraser River gold seekers at the docks on Wharf Street. In March, you could have bought an acre of raw land for one English pound (around five dollars). By the end of May, the same acre was selling for about 100 pounds – if you closed the deal quickly. A year later, “a lot 20 to 30 feet in breadth and 60 feet in length could be rented for one hundred pounds a month” and “a half lot bought pre-boom for five pounds sold for 600 pounds” a few weeks later.

The dollar and the decimal replaced the pound in 1862 – but the change did nothing to relieve depressed newlyweds or soon-to-be-weds aspiring to home ownership.

The gold seekers were transients, content to pitch tents wherever they could while waiting for the next ship to leave for the Fraser gold fields.

Victoria, the capital of the Colony of Vancouver Island, was, at the time, the only Canadian port of entry. To get to the Fraser gold fields you disembarked in Victoria then waited for a boat to get to the mainland and the Fraser goldfields, and later, the Cariboo, Barkerville, and the big one – the Yukon.

Victoria was their lone base supplier – their service industry centre – and that pushed development and land costs ever higher.

In 1858-59, the “the harbour shoreline was a sea of tents” and shanties erected on property rented for exorbitant prices – often by here-today-gone-tomorrow squatters. Three years later, in 1861-62, streets once knee-deep in mud on rainy days were paved, and sidewalks were in place. The “city” was boasting 56 brick buildings, warehouses to hold supplies, a hospital, a theatre – and a reading room.

And the young people fretted home ownership was forever beyond their grasp.

Before the gold seekers, Fort Victoria had been a busy but bucolic administrative centre for the Hudson’s Bay Company, the company that built the original fort and stockade to keep its servants and settlers safe from “the savages.” Ironically, it was these “savages,” the local Songhees, who led the fort builders to “the hill of cedars” – today’s Mount Douglas and Cedar Hill district. It was the Songhees who “harvested lengthy cedar planks from its forests to construct (the) palisades around Fort Victoria.”

Early descriptions tell us the fort was “a square enclosure, stockaded with poles about 20 feet high and eight to 10 inches in diameter, placed close together and secured with a cross-piece of nearly equal size. At the traverse corner of the square, there are strong octagonal towers mounted with four nine-pounder guns flanking each side so that an attack by savages would be out of the question …”

Ah, yes, the “savage” Songhees who helped build the fort to protect the white invaders from their “savagery.” One record states: “… Only one brush has the Company had with the Indians, but it ended in a day or two; the gates of the fort having been closed, a nine pounder fired several times to show what could be done – and judicious and conciliatory advances made to the chief. The peaceable intercourse – from which sprang blankets, hatchets, knives, fishhooks and harpoons – was speedily re-established.”

But even when cooperative, the Songhees remained a problem for white settlers anxious to save the natives from their ancient culture, their traditional language, their laws and their religion.

Not a major problem the white leaders reported; just “a great inconvenience rising from the existence of the Songhees Indian reservation in such close proximity to Victoria.” An inconvenience exacerbated by “northern Indians … in the habit of visiting Victoria and remaining for months at a time on this reserve, bartering for their furs, obtaining liquor, and seeing the sights of the capital. The ill effects of these conditions and their latent danger could not be concealed.”

Not at all considerate, those early Songhees, inconveniently hanging around what they had called home for a thousand years or more. And on top of that, they made welcome their cousins from the north (anywhere beyond the Saanich Peninsula was north) when they came to trade and spend at the fort, and gawk like country cousins at the high palisades built to protect the white folk.

They didn’t get any bargains from “the company” which, the press reported, offered “all the multifarious products of Sheffield, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds … at exorbitant prices … there being no competition, (the Hudson Bay) company has it all its own way.” And not just with the natives.

Its employees were also held in thrall, “receiving little pay” and forced to buy all life’s needs from the company store. They were “usually in debt to the company and therefore in its power.” But, as one observer cheerfully noted: “The work is hard, but with health and strength this is a blessing rather than otherwise.”

Yes, indeed, hard work unless, as Royal Navy Lieut. Mayne wrote in a letter to a friend in 1857, you were an officer and a gentleman and found Victoria a “very pleasant and society, as it is generally in a young colony, frank and agreeable … the half-dozen houses (outside the fort) that made up the town were open to us.

“In fine weather, riding parties … were formed, and we returned generally to high tea or a tea-dinner at Mr. Douglas’ or Mr. Work’s, winding up a pleasant evening with dance and song. We thought nothing of starting off to Victoria in sea boots, carrying others in our pockets, just to enjoy a pleasant evening by a good log fire. And, we cared as little for the weary tramp home to Esquimalt in the dark, although it happened sometimes that men lost their way and had to sleep in the bush all night.”

The fort vanished, as did “the company’s” stranglehold on rates of pay and living standards. And the young people survived, triumphed, bought houses, raised families, built cities, a province and a nation.

Today’s young couples, tomorrow’s pioneers, will do the same – or better.

(Sources: Howay’s British Columbia; Macfie’s Vancouver Island and British Columbia; www.Vancouver Island.com/ParksandTrails/Parks)

Ninety Five and Counting

Well, to repeat a phrase I’ve used so many times over the past half-century: “That’s it then, another year staggering to its close; another birthday – the 95th posted – and the 96th a distant shimmer somewhere out there in the mists of time.

It’s been a long haul since my first plaintive cries shattered the post-peace and goodwill of Christmas 1923 on a bleak December 27th morning. My mother would later recall the event when showing me off to relatives and friends as “a nice lad, even if he did ruin my Christmas.”

It was a bright tale, always told with the warmth and love she had and openly demonstrated for all her children; a warmth and love I never really appreciated until I became a parent myself. The example she set alongside my always strong, taciturn, badly wounded WW1 veteran and father, served me well. Still will I hope as I head down another unknown stretch of road marked 2019.

Other than a calendar-marked starting date, the future “road map” is, as always, blank when it comes to details and destinations. I know only one thing for sure; like the stretches already travelled, there will be rough spots, some hills that will be tough to climb, some valleys of despair – and as many and hopefully more – of widespread summer-lit meadows warmed and made pleasant by the shared love of family and friends.

I have no more idea of how long the next leg of my journey will be than I had when I made what, I’m told, was a noisy entrance 95 years ago. I just hope I can head over the last hills with a minimum of fuss – and that I don’t ruin anyone’s Christmas with my departure.

I am often asked these days how much longer I intend to keep writing blogs. The question is usually asked with eyebrows in questioning rise as though publishing weekly thoughts and opinions at age 95 is, well, just let’s say – not talked about in mixed company.

My answer is an honest “I have no idea.” Right now, I enjoy the challenge of the self-imposed weekly deadline of my blog. It’s a stimulating mental exercise, good for me with the abiding hope that it occasionally brings some joy or spark of a challenge from readers.

With a bit of luck, I can publish a re-run of this piece a year from now. That would be on Sunday, December 29, two days after my 96th. That marker looks a long way down the road yet to travel from where I am today, but then so has each new year I’ve walked since I was old enough to wonder where life was taking me. It has always been a far distant and often nervous, unknown journey since 1923.

To help me walk the next leg of my current hike, my son Stephen (72 on January 1st) and his wife Susan gave me for my birthday a copy of Herman Wouk’s latest book. “It might,” they wrote on a greeting card, “provide a little inspiration.” Wouk’s list of accomplished writings is long and star-studded. Among the many and well remembered – The Winds of War, War and Remembrance; and his classic as a book, movie and stage play, The Caine Mutiny.

I haven’t yet started to read my birthday present, but I did sneak a look at the Author’s Note on the opening page of what I’m sure will be another epic. He quotes a few lines from The Wreck of Old 97, the old dramatic narrative poem about a train crashing as it roared “down the grade doing 90 miles an hour” and the finding of the driver “in the wreck with his hand on the throttle … scalded to death by the steam.”

He continues: “Gentle reader, that railroad folk tune is sure haunting your durable storyteller, aged 97. When I passed my ninetieth birthday milestone going hell-for-leather down the nonagenarian grade, I figured I had better cobble up what was left to write while I could … next thing I knew, four years had whistled by … (and) I had in hand thirty-odd work journals and a slim book of 40,000 words ….”

And thus came to birth Sailor and Fiddler – Reflections of a 100-year-old Author. The final paragraph of the author’s introductory note: “On Old 97, the air brakes failed …. hence the unhappy wreck. Lord grant that my air brakes hold while I get done all I can, roll into Spencer (Old 97s destination) on time and hand in my orders.”

I confess that those few paragraphs inspire me, as do two sons who have penned and had published award-winning articles and books, and four sons who think I have a life story worth telling and urge me to start writing.

I’m inspired but not enough. It takes time, energy and talent to write a book. At 95, time – never fully guaranteed – is measured with less certainty than ever; energy fades dramatically, and talent is impossible to quantify.

So, for now, I’ll puddle along with a weekly ramble in low gear, gently touching the brakes on the steep grades.

With Clean Knees For God

Saturday night was bath night – except at Christmas when, whatever the day, the late afternoon hours of Christmas Eve were organized for special ablutions based on Saturday night tradition. A battered galvanized tin tub was brought into the kitchen from the backyard plunked in front of the kitchen fire and half-filled with buckets of cold water plus a couple of kettles of boiling water. Just enough to take the chill off.

With sister Doris on enforced visit to the neighbours during the cleansing of her brothers, the ritual began, changed only from our regular Saturday night splash by more vigorous scrubbing. My brother Tom, four years my senior, was deemed old enough and responsible enough to bathe himself. I was not. For me, a strong-armed mother was needed to make sure every visible patch of my 10-year old body gleamed.

Hands, elbows, and behind the ears got special attention. Fingernails were trimmed and every speck of grime removed. Hair, shampooed and dried, was combed reasonably straight and I was eventually proclaimed clean enough to wear freshly laundered pyjamas and ready for bed.

Next morning, we would be up and about for a fairly early breakfast which, it being Christmas Day, would offer rare treats of eggs and bacon, huge slabs of bread and a cup of tea. We were allowed (ordered) to wear our pyjamas while opening recession-modest presents and while eating breakfast. The latter was not a concession to slovenliness but to make sure no egg yolk dripped on soon-to-be worn Christmas Day best suits and ties. With the donning of those ultra cleaned and pressed garments there were more examinations of fingernails, ears, and knees.

We didn’t get to wear long pants until we reached the magic age of 14 so clean knees were of prime importance for choir boys representing the house of Hume. Tom qualified for long pants; I didn’t. My protests that, as all choir boys wore ankle-length cassocks, no one in church ever saw my knees were swept aside with a motherly declaration that “God can see your knees.”

And with that, we would be ushered from the house for the short-block walk to St. Mary’s Abbey church, with Tom getting firm last-minute orders to “go straight to church and make sure he (that’s me) doesn’t get mucky before he gets there.”

After morning service, we would meander home, taking care not to get too mucky because we knew there would be another inspection before the big meal of the day to be served at midday. Before we boys could eat, we had to change our clothes because we had an evening service to sing, and gravy stains on nice white shirts could undoubtedly also be seen by God.

After the meal – usually an elderly chicken donated by Granddad Jimmy Startin, my mother’s father – loaded with vegetables and dumplings and followed by Christmas pudding and custard, it was nap time for adults, reading time or playing with newly opened Christmas present board games for the choir boys.

Then a sandwich and cup of tea, the final examination of the day with touch-ups where necessary, the short walk to church and ‘‘Evensong” around 5:30 or six. Mother always attended Evensong, beaming with pride. By seven o’clock we walked home together with only gas lamps lighting the winter-dark streets, not talking much.

Then it was hot cocoa and biscuits and bed. Christmas had never been happier. And I wish you all an equal season of happiness leavened with the simple joys and loving strength of family.

Potential But Far From Proven

“There will never, ever, be anything buried here,” said Speaker Darryl Plecas in his gasket-blowing speech to the management committee of the BC Legislature a few days ago. He was responding to – but avoiding meaningful answers to – blunt questions from committee members trying to find out the detailed reasoning behind the suspension of Clerk of the House Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz.

Both had been escorted from the Legislature precinct, office keys and codes to confidential files surrendered, pending the results of a freshly launched police investigation and the findings of two special prosecutors, one for each of the suspended officials.

Plecas said he wanted the all-party committee to know that very early in his tenure as Speaker, “very serious concerns were brought to me about certain activities that were taking place within the Legislative Assembly. When I learned of this information, I felt a great duty to safeguard the integrity of this institution and be very mindful of why we’re all here.”

Heavy duty information and so serious that he felt it “imperative for me to act on the information before me.” And act he did, but not by passing the information received to the attorney general for action. He stated: “Given the information is very serious, and the very sensitive nature of the information that was before me, which could potentially be criminal, I believe that I acted appropriately to ensure that the information I had been provided was reliable.”

He acted by calling on an old friend who he hired to check out the information. The old friend was Alan Mullen, and his assignment was “due diligence” on the information to hand and any more that might surface in the process. Plecas was indignant that the press had given Mullen the title of “investigator.”

“Nothing, nothing, nothing could be further from the truth – not even close … I’m sure the police and the special prosecutors will jump forward and tell you that he wasn’t investigating. They would probably also tell you that every single thing he did and I did leading up to giving the police the information was done not well – but perfectly.” I guess if you are awarding yourself the marks in any test, you may as well plump for perfect.

Mullen was so perfect that Plecas once suggested he could become the sergeant-at-arms to replace Lenz. It was an offer quickly rejected. Plecas ended his disjointed speech to the management committee with a prophecy on what will happen as the final curtain falls on British Columbia’s 2018 Christmas Carol with Mullen taking unlimited curtain calls: “I know what’s going to happen at the end of this. People are going to be cheering for Mullen, and they’re going to say ‘whatever you do here at the Legislature, don’t get rid of Mr. Mullen.”

Yes, well, as British novelist Samuel Butler wrote in The Way of All Flesh: “The advantage of doing one’s praising for oneself is that one can lay it on so thick and exactly in the right places.”

As has become customary in modern times, it is incumbent that an audience advisory be posted. Plecas has already warned that when the truth of his and Mullen’s roles are finally made known, the public will physically vomit. If the findings “do not make them throw up, I will resign as Speaker and Mr. Mullen will resign as well.”

Be sure to be standing at the back of the crowd, just in case he’s right.

And to consider while we await the Speaker’s January dishonours list is the less than honourable reaction of the government and the RCMP which leaves two men dangling over Christmas and New Year still unaware of who exactly their accusers are, and what their “potentially criminal” acts have been.

Speaker Plecas has said we can rule out “fraud” so I guess that’s one charge we can bury. Maybe when he gets to check his post Christmas accusation list he’ll find a few more but that will be far too late to undo the damage of “potential” but not proven or even identified, acts of criminality.