When Coal was King But Far From Proud

The troubles started in Extension, a small mining community a few kilometres south of Nanaimo in August 1912. Two coal miners were fired when they complained to management that unacceptable levels of explosive gas existed at the coal face. One of the workers headed north seeking a job in the mines of Cumberland only to find he had been blacklisted – not just in Cumberland but throughout Vancouver Island.

When the Cumberland miners heard of his plight, they proclaimed September 16th, 1912, a study day and downed tools to discuss the challenge to already hazardous working conditions. The following day they found themselves locked out and were informed they would remain locked out until they signed contracts vowing to end job action, quit their union, return to work and never again engage in trade union activity. 

The agreements, contemptuously called “yellow dog” contracts, saw the Cumberland miners stay off the job – and every other miner at every other pit on the Island followed in support of what the history books would call Vancouver Island’s Great Coal Strike.

It was a time when coal mining was the primary industry on the Island with large and small operations digging for the vital fuel from Ladysmith to Fort Rupert (Port Hardy). For months, mine owners were content to leave their mines silent, but by August 1913 – with stockpiles depleted and demand from ships, railways, and steam-driven heavy industry growing – they needed to get back into production. But their miners, concerned for decades about safety on the job as well as poor pay, were in no mood to compromise.

Their memories of a seemingly endless stream of disasters, from single deaths to the 150 dead in the Nanaimo No.1 mine explosion and fire in 1887, kept them implacable in their demands for greater safety. The workers were not always right in their beliefs or justified in their demands, which included an irrational ban on Chinese workers. But, their cries for more excellent safety and better social conditions in the mining communities were hard to deny.

But, deny them the mine owners did and, with the tacit agreement if not outright support of government, they brought in small armies of strike-breaking miners from San Francisco and as far away as Italy. Striking miners living in mine-owned houses were ordered to vacate and were evicted by “special constables” if they refused. The strikebreakers were to be the new occupants and were encouraged to defend what they were offered and provided with sticks and clubs and told to fight back when threatened.

In Europe WW1 was raging with horrendous battle casualties. On Vancouver Island striking miners and imported strike-breakers engaged in mine-head or street corner clashes with miniscule fatalities but many broken heads and limbs.

On August 5th, a group of strikebreakers attacked and stabbed a striking miner. The assailants were subsequently arrested, but only after demands from a delegation of miners who complained of double standards in the enforcement of the law. On August 11th, a large rally virtually took over Nanaimo to protest the presence of strikebreakers, and the following day, 800 strikers and their families marched in a similar protest in South Wellington. That protest led to the expulsion of “the scabs” from the Wellington area and encouraged the protesters to march on to Ladysmith, where, as August 13th dawned, the protest turned violent.

When one protester began to sing “Hurray, hurray, we’ll drive the scabs away,” he was arrested and jailed in Ladysmith. A report published by the Simon Fraser University Labour Studies Program tells us the miner was freed by his wife, “a veritable Amazon in build, vigour and strength” who rallied a group of strikers and marched to the jail where “wielding an axe she freed her husband.”

Rioting continued through the night with homes and other mine company property destroyed. It culminated in a bundle of dynamite being thrown into the home of strikebreaker Alex McKinnon who was badly injured as he tried to protect his children from the blast. It took more than a year before two perpetrators were brought to trial, and it was revealed that they were neither strikers nor strikebreakers but two citizens “who were drunk and had allowed their participation to go too far.” They were sent to prison.

On August 20th, 2011, (when I wrote this original column) – there was a day of remembering Vancouver Island’s mining industry at the Morden Colliery Historic Park a few kilometres south of Nanaimo.

Morden had never earned a high degree of fame for production or notoriety on the mine-tragedy scale. And only the weather and time damaged head-frame at the pithead of Morden Colliery plus a few other structures remained as bleak ruined monuments of British Columbia’s coal mining industry, gaunt reminders of the men who had worked the coal seams – and all too often, in their hundreds – died in the dark.

In April 2019, the provincial government approved a grant of $1.4 million to restore and preserve the Morden Mine coal tipple, the only one surviving in Canada and one of only two remaining in North America.

It remains a work in progress but is open to visitors this summer. Google “Friends of Morden Mine” or go to Facebook or Morden Colliery Historic Provincial Park for how to get there, and up to date visiting times. If you would like a fuller picture of what life was like when coal was King and coal barons brutal, find a copy of Three Dollar Dreams by Lynn Bowen – and understand why a restored coal tipple is a worthy monument.

When “for ever” Is Sometimes Shorter

When, in the late 1600s, the government of England proclaimed the 29th day of May should henceforth, “be kept forever as a day of thanksgiving for redemption …” it was voicing bizarre evil.

The English Civil War (1642-1649) was fought between the royalist forces loyal to King Charles I and the parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell. The Royalist were defeated at the Battle of Naseby in 1645 and Cromwell declared Britain a republic and went on to become it’s Lord Protector. Following his death in 1658 the monarchy was restored and Charles II became king on May 29, 1660.

We can be thankful that, although it remained unchanged for 200 years, it doesn’t seem to have been more than a brief tear drop in the great clock of time. I am not referring to today’s traditional month of May holiday celebrated these days on the “Monday preceding May 25” and so ordered by Queen Victoria.

My lament is much more dramatic with a dazzle of handsome cavaliers, superbly mounted, riding through the night to protect a bonny Prince Charles from Oliver Cromwell’s hard-faced “Roundheads.”

Early morning – 3 a.m., the record keepers say – Prince Charles with a party of 60 loyalists is on the run, survivors of the Battle of Worcester hoping to find a night’s rest with sympathizers. Instead, they are advised Cromwell’s troopers are already searching for them locally.

The Prince and two officers are advised to select one of the large nearby oak trees in which they could hide throughout the dawning day before continuing what was now a dash for the coast and the safety of a ship to Europe. It was some 30 years before Charles – then King Charles II – could tell his story to the great diarist Samuel Pepys.

A local supporter led them to “a great oak in a plain place where we could see all around us. It had been lopped some three or four years before and was grown out very bushy and thick and could not be seen through. And there we sat all day …”

The only facts history can guarantee for that night of high adventure are that Charles was on the run in that specific area; that he did avoid capture; and that he found sanctuary in Europe. And, there are claims that acorns from oak trees in the geographic area of the incident provide positive genetic links.

One day, an enterprising tree specialist may track down such a link and plant a clinically proven seedling out Elk-Beaver Lake way – a bona fide descendant of King Charles II confirming the early settlers’ approval to the name given to the chosen district of Saanich on today’s map. It was known as “the lake district’ when they moved in, changed to Royal Oak by common usage as they settled in.

But, then again, there’s a “but” for everything and quite a few to attach to the Glamourous Charles II, who came back to England from exile in 1660 to finally claim the crown he was denied when he hid in the oak tree.

His nemesis Oliver Cromwell had died during Charles’ exile in 1658 and was honoured by a state funeral at Westminster Abbey equal in magnificence to any bestowed on any Monarch before him. His son Richard replaced him, but an army revolt quickly ended his leadership career, and Charles II was back home, king at last.

The new king moved fast on a fearsome journey of revenge. One of Parliament’s first decisions under Charles II was a response to royal demands that Cromwell, dead and buried in Westminster Abbey two years earlier, be disinterred and brought to trial for the murder of King Charles I.

Two of Cromwell’s advisors, John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton, followed the same Parliamentary fates. All three were found guilty. Their corpses beheaded and placed on 6.1 metres (20-feet) poles at the entrance to Westminster Hall, where the trial had been held.

And what has all or any of the proceeding to do with the opening paragraph of this piece that May 29 “be forever kept as a day of thanksgiving for our redemption from tyranny …”

It is interesting to wonder what Queen Victoria was thinking in 1859 when she authorized “the full and formal abolition” of the Bill to Celebrate the Birth of Charles II and basically replaced it with the holiday and birthday party for whoever sat on the English throne.

When Royal Rights Are Wrong

When King George III died on January 29, 1820, he had lived and reigned longer than any preceding monarch; and only two – Queens Victoria and Elizabeth II – have since surpassed him.

“Farmer George,” as he was fondly known early in his reign, was 81 years and 239 days old when he died and had been King for 59 years and 96 days. He is best remembered as the “Mad King” who lost England’s American Colonies in his descent from vigorous leader to the darkest shadows of mental illness.

In 2020, we may be a little kinder in our description of our leaders than we were when George III was blundering his way through history. “Mad” is far too harsh a pejorative when questioning the conduct of a royal – or doubting the sincerity of the president of one of the world’s once-great countries, a president who appears to dream of being royal.

So, we may well shake our heads and mutter madness when we recall King George informing his realm: “Once vigorous measures appear to be the only means left of bringing the Americans to a due submission of the mother country – the Colonies will submit.”

But, we can only wonder about President Donald Trump’s mental ability when we hear him bluster similar threats to state governors – that if they don’t start roughing up “black lives matter” protesters in their towns and cities, He – the Lord High Executioner – will send in the National Guard to sweep the streets.

If we have read any histories of the rise and fall of the British Empire, we may have stumbled across another King George gem that resembles a Trump twitter: “A traitor is everyone who does not agree with me.’’

I realize we are getting a little late in the American presidential election cycle; still, I think it would be a great idea if CNN and the U.S. newspapers started a series of articles on the USA Declaration of Independence and the 27 “grievances” attached that made sure England understood what was bothering the colonists in the new world.

Taxes, as always, were of paramount concern, but how they were imposed and collected were more important than the amount of the tax.

Grievance 1: “He (the King) has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”

Grievance 2: “He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and when suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.”

Grievance 3: “He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.”

To read the next 24 grievances, go to Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grievances_of_the_United_States_Declaration_of_Independence

There is a clear theme: “You, King George, set us up to look like a government, but all our decisions depend on your final say — and we have no appeal …” It’s a form of phony democracy Donald Trump would love to institute – and tries to impose from time to time. Readers with the patience to riffle through all 27 of the Grievances will notice how easily “would-be-king Donald” could be substituted for “mentally challenged King George.”

I leave my final thought on the loss of the American colonies to Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II. It’s a few years old but thoughtful, honest, mentally sound and stands up well: “We lost the American colonies because we lacked the statesmanship to know the right time – and the manner – of yielding what it is impossible to keep.”

A Fashionable Fight

It was in 1977 that the Government of British Columbia awakened the residents of Lotus Land with a new law. And I mean, awakened.

On a specified but not too distant date if you drove a motor vehicle in BC in would be mandatory to be safety-belted in. And anyone who wanted to ride with you would also be strapped in.

Later refinements would widen the straps and buckles

to create  safety seats for infants and slightly older youngsters. And full adult safety seats would have to be available for any passengers. There were hefty fines for law breaker.

The new law designed to protect travellers on highways being made increasingly hazardous by careless drivers, was not welcomed. Drivers, whose accident rates were making the safety requirements essential, regarded the “buckle up or be fined” regulations as punitive, and the speed with which they were being brought to law a threat to democracy.

But the government stayed firm, insisted that it was driver’s and their ever mounting medical plus car repair costs that made the seat belt safety program not just needed –but essential,

The debate continues and, of course always will because people don’t like to be told that sometimes the only way keep costs in check is to curb their bad behaviour. And if the people, who should know better, continue to misbehave, then tough action to get their attention is required.

We appear to have arrived at one of those “tough love” checkpoints in the current pandemic now staggering the world and at present defying science. In the past the men and women of science have won most of their major battles with the ills that plague us.

For sure it’s true they haven’t won them all, but where they haven’t yet won they continue to fight with some success at slowing down some diseases which once were unchecked; and I do believe they edge ever closer to the day when we can claim another victory.

In the present battle they have asked for our help. They have asked us all to give them a hand by wearing a small face mask. And some of us are responding by doing just that – but we do get a bit indolent out here where we complain if the sun doesn’t shine every day.

So, anyway, I wear a face mask on the rare occasions when I venture forth into the ever-wider world. My own doctor tells me it helps, and I need to believe his advice,

I regret that I still walk with the minority when it comes to masks – but I have great hopes for a mass conversion. I read in the New York Times a view days ago that Gucci had designed the mask Billie Eilish wore at the Grammy awards. It maybe all the medics need to boost their cause for a growing use of face masks.

All that is needed now is for women to realise that a face mask fashionably associated with a blouse, dress or jacket can be most attractive. Men won’t be far behind as they search for the “rugged” look.

And our health care workers will be delighted.

The World Is Still Waiting

It wasn’t until 2015 that descendants of former and long-dead British slave owners received final payments in compensation for their ancestral financial “losses” in 1837. That was the year the United Kingdom signed into being the Slave Compensation Act and established the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave Owners.

And, yes, it did take quite a while.

The British had been in the slave trade for centuries before “ownership” of one human being by another became recognized symbols of wealth and arrogance. And, when they formed a colony in far off America, they encouraged the early settlers to look across the ocean to Africa for a labour force easily, if brutally, recruited, and shipped in shackles to cheaply fulfill the needs of ever-larger plantations growing cotton and tobacco.

It is estimated that, from start to finish, close to 13 million slaves were captured for shipment to the American and Caribbean colonies. That is before, during, and after the great rebellion which saw the American colonists rebel at tax increases and sever family relations with the Brits.

In the process, the English – slave traders since time began, moved into a period of enlightenment which led to the abolition of one man or one family owning another. Amazingly, in freeing all slaves owned by the English, like plantation owners, the government piously agreed to a compensation package to make sure no one who owned slaves suffered a financial loss.

Under the law signed Dec. 23, 1837, English slave owners would be compensated for their losses. And the now freed slaves? Ah, yes, well, it seems that they were expected to be so pleased with freedom they wouldn’t expect more.

Readers with a thirst for detailed money trails can find guidance from Wikipedia and a conclusion I accept without serious challenge: “This 1837 (Slavery Abolition) Act paid substantial money to the former slave owners, but nothing to the newly liberated people.”

It is difficult to believe in 2020 that the freed slaves under English law in 1837 would regard that “gift” of freedom and equality as more welcome than cash. It pains us when we hear the cry “Black Lives Matter” – a continuing cry for justice – still echoing on the streets of our neighbours.

The National Archives of the UK tell many a horror story of slavery before the Brits decided it was time to change their old ways and attitudes. On the small Leeward Islands on the old British Colony at Dominica the court records are brief, concise:

“1814, January 15. Pierre. Attempting to return to runaways with provisions and having (himself) been a runaway (for) two months. To be hanged. Head cut off and put on a pole.”

“1814: January 15-16: Peter. Exciting a mutiny among 20 negroes of the estate and harvesting them with provisions while runaways. To be hanged. Head cut off and put on a pole.

“Rachel: 30 lashes. To be worked in chains 3 months. Received 30 lashes and released to owner.” Stealing food was a cardinal sin

There were 3,000 British slave owners; most were on the seemingly endless list of brutal actions against men and women seeking only the basic qualities of freedom.

One of the thousands was widow Hannah Barnes of Barton Cottage Dawlish, Devon, England who had an annuity of 400 pounds from her late husband’s a Cumberland Estate in Jamaica. She had inherited ownership of nine slaves in Kingston, the capital of the island. She needed more to maintain her life style.

It was in 1835 that she appealed to the Commissioners of Slave Compensation: “I, my daughter and her children, are entirely dependent for support on what we receive from my late husband’s estate; that in consequence of the non-receipt of our remittance for many months past I am much in want of money.”

It has been estimated by the men and women who track such events that at least 3,000 British slave owners have received 20 million pounds ($1.8 billion in today’s currency) since 1833. And if you ever paid any taxes in the UK before 2015, the old slavers thank you.

On April 16, 1862, some 30 years after British reformers abolished slavery, with a hefty compensation program, USA President Abraham Lincoln followed. It had taken a bloody civil war between brothers to amend the United States much revered Constitution to read “all men are create equal” but Lincoln did it

Like the English they offered compensation to their 900 USA registered slave owners of $300 a slave. They accepted the money, but as a nation had difficulty in accepting the fact that reciting “all men are created equal” doesn’t make it so.

And still do.

A Canada Day Worth Remembering

It was a strange sight deep in the heart of rural France. Barely fluttering from a tall weather-beaten flagpole was an immaculately laundered Canadian flag. In September 1976 – our flag being a mere 11 years old – it was a wonderful sight to see even if it wasn’t close to July 1 Dominion Day (1879) which became became Canada Day in July 1982.

I almost missed it as we pulled out of Chaumousey, one of the many colourful villages scattered across the Vosges range in eastern France. During the Second World War, it was on the direct route as the Allies – the United States Fifth Army and the French First Army – drove across France to cross the River Rhine and penetrate into the heart of Hitler’s Germany.

We were driving from Vienna to Paris, looking for nothing in particular, everything in general. The Maple Leaf, flying alone atop a very tall flagpole deep in rural France demanded a pause in plans. There were questions to be asked, answers to be sought.

I did a quick U-turn to drift back to Chaumousey, which isn’t far from Epinal, where 5,255 white crosses stand in vast mute testimony to U.S. battle deaths. In comparison, the cemetery at Chaumousey was postage stamp size, a final resting place for generations of villagers with not much room for mass intrusions.

But the villagers had found room for the graves of six members of the crew of Lancaster bomber III PB253 UL-A2 of Royal Air Force Squadron 576. They lie side by side in one special manicured grave, placed there by the villagers on July 29, 1944, when their aircraft was shot down by German night fighters. Only the pilot, Flying Officer Jimmy Archibald of the New Zealand Air Force, survived the mid-air explosion that blew him through the flight deck windows leaving him with just enough instinct to pull his parachute ripcord.

He was later found hanging in a tree, with multiple fractures and internal injuries. He was rescued by German troops, taken to a German hospital, and eventually returned to England after liberation by U.S. troops.

The six dead were left for the people of Chaumousey to bury. Five were English; one was Flying Officer Peter Joseph Biollo, a 20-year-old from Edmonton, and the lone Canadian in the crew.

The Maple Leaf flew for him the day I drove by in 1976. For reasons village historians cannot explain, it is the only foreign flag to fly over the gravesite. In Chaumousey, it remains where “the Canadian bomber crashed and where the Canadian airman is buried.”

A letter written in September 1945 by Abbe Albert Mercier, parish priest of Chaumousey, provided details of the July 31, 1944 funeral service for the crew: “A very large … number of people formed the funeral procession of these heroes whose caskets were covered with flowers and, in spite of the interdiction of the Germans, the big crowd went to the cemetery and joined in the final prayers at the graves.”

I have always wondered what the “interdiction of the Germans” was in 1944 when their thousand-year empire was in disastrous collapse. Not pleasant I suspect.

Today, I wonder if Chaumousey still holds memorial services for the crew of PB253 and still flies the Maple Leaf as it was so proudly continuing to do in 1976 “for the Canadian” when we paused so briefly to stand in the awe and pride the Maple Leaf can command when seen so far from home in such respectful cause.

In Nanton, Alberta, they have an aircraft museum boasting a fully re-built Lancaster bomber. Inscribed on the Bomber Command Memorial Wall are a few words from Father J.P. Lardie, Chaplain 419/428 Squadron RCAF.

“Three thousand miles across a hunted ocean they came, wearing on the shoulder of their tunics the treasured name – Canada – telling the world their origin. Young men and women they were, some still in their teens, fashioned by their Maker to love, not to kill, but proud and earnest in their mission to stand, and if it had to be, to die, for their country and for freedom …”

The old folk of Chaumousey would say “amen” to that and let their children tell the story of why, for a few days in late September, the Maple Leaf  still flies high and proud over “their” Canadian grave.

A World Turned Upside Down

When British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his army to General George Washington at Yorktown in 1781, he wanted to leave the field of battle in smart moving formation, but Washington turned down his choice of marching music. He did accept a second choice and history records the defeated British Army left the field, not to a smart stepping military piece but to the subdued, even sombre, tones of an old song The World Turned Upside Down.

Whether by design or accident, it proved to be an accurate theme for the birth and early history of the United States of America. And, it could be re-played today without serious challenge as the foundations of the nation – laid with such hopeful promise close to 240 years ago – tremble as the Republic is threatened again. The world was then and is today turned upside down.

In recent days, the statue of first USA president, General Washington, was toppled from its historic pedestal, besmirched with muck, and daubed with paint and badly written insults. He is not the first American hero to be ripped from a place of honour. Privately, Washington supported abolition, but carefully. He once told members of his cabinet he feared eventual conflict between northern and southern states and warned should that happen he would support abolition. But, he still owned a hundred or more slaves to work his farmland. Many were buried in unmarked graves on his land. Historians say he treated them well in life and his will granted all of them their freedom when he died.

But, Wikipedia states: “There is no indication Washington ever favoured an immediate end to slavery. His abolitionist aspirations were confined to the hope that slavery would disappear naturally over time.”

One of the first American heroes once revered and then irreverently removed from a place of high honour was General Robert E. Lee. He was the man who led the Confederate Army in the great Civil War that would decide whether slavery should continue as a flourishing, brutal business or be ended with emancipation guaranteeing equality of life for all U.S. citizens as promised by then-president Abraham Lincoln.

Lee was an ardent defender of the right of white citizens to buy and own black slaves. They were citizens of South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas and joined later by Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee. The Confederate States lost the four-year (1861-65) blood bath and eventually lost their right to own other human beings as slaves.

But many have never given up the belief that black people are, by virtue of being black, inferior. And that white men, who fought and died for the right to own slaves, are deserving of something close to sainthood. Confederate soldiers were honoured with statues and shrines and the old Confederate flag continued to fly in many of the Confederate States.

The campaign for equality is being waged more stridently than ever been these days – and the possibility of success is more encouraging than ever.

It was in June 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, that Dylan Roof, 21, entered the Emmanuel African Methodist Church, joined a prayer group and pulled a handgun to shoot and kill nine worshippers as they held hands in prayer. Roof was captured, tried, found guilty and remains in prison.

Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans at the time, decided strong action was required to awaken a public that seemed to be increasingly indifferent to Roof’’s murder spree, his trial and punishment. He decided to remove from a place of prominence a magnificent statue of General Lee, triumphant on his battle horse, defeated in a cruel Civil War, but still a warrior to be publicly admired. It took Mayor Landrieu two years to remove Lee and his horse. In a comprehensive report published this month in Vanity Fair, the former mayor was asked if seeing more statues being banished pleased him: “No. It makes me feel sad, actually, that it

took so long. There is no defence for having a monument in a place of reverence to a person who fought to destroy the country in order to preserve slavery.” 

Mayor Landrieu didn’t stop with a single action. After leaving the mayor’s office in 2018 he has travelled the country to talk about being “divided by design” and the confidence he has that the current wave of “Black Lives Matter” mass protests signify “a change is coming.”

We can hope so. It’s been a long and often bloody wait for an answer, in a world turned upside down, to a question we should never need to ask.

No Eye To Pity – No Arm To Save

Those of us who were around in the 1980s and old enough to be paying attention may recall a brief eyebrow-raising moment when we read in our daily newspaper that our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, had lost his seat on the prestigious United Nations Security Council. Eyebrows were probably raised again a few days ago when we read PM Justin Trudeau’s bid to recapture the seat had failed.

For the sake of accuracy, I should write “Canada’s seat” and note that it had been earned – won if you like – by an earlier First Minister Mike Pearson. He was the Canadian leader who joined a handful of power brokers to bring a shattered world out of the darkness of the Second World War into “the sunny uplands” of the peace upheld by the Security Council of the United Nations.

The United Nations was a dream then, and remains a dream today, hard to capture, even harder to hold, especially if you lean toward dullness as PM Harper did so often. If he cared about losing Canada’s seat at the most powerful Security Council table to Portugal, he didn’t show it.

To be fair, neither did the procession of PMs who followed him. Between 1979 and 1993 we had Joe Clark, Pierre Trudeau (back for a second time), John Turner, Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell, and Jean Chretien. Two of them broke records to be remembered but not for great triumphs. Kim Campbell came close to superheroine status as the first female PM but survived for only six months; John Turner racked up only a few days more than two and a half months and holds the distinction of being the only PM to never sit in the House while in session.

Canada bumbled along building on Lester B. Pearson’s peacemaker model which saw Canada’s armed forces shipped to trouble spots around the world to maintain law and order. They were proud years for the nation, with red and white bars and the Maple leaf prominent on the white bar; fluttering from a tall pole or stuck on a battered rucksack or lapel button miniature. They made us feel welcome and we were proud.

But, as with most good things, times changed, and as the new Millennium edged its way into our lives the image of Canada as peacekeeper started to fade. The Harper Conservatives had different spending priorities; the army, navy, and air force suffered.

For more than 40 years, Canada had shipped 80,000 trained personnel around the world on peacekeeping missions. The success rate was high, but each mission seemed a little more expensive than the last. And, there was a growing danger that the Canadian “peace police” were being maneuvered into taking sides.

In the mid-1990s, Somalia became a troubled hot spot with rival tribes vying for control. Already plagued by drought and famine with rival tribes raiding and killing rival villagers for their meager food supplies, strong countermeasures seemed called for from the UN.

Canada’s answer was to call on the elite Canadian Airborne Regiment. A Battalion-sized force 1,400 strong from the battle-trained parachute brigade, hit the ground in Somalia in December 1992. Its assignment seemed clear: Bring order to the area. Convoy food and medical supplies to where they were required and make sure they got to people who needed them not the tribal leaders who filled their own food needs then sold what was left at exorbitant prices,

It would be years before details on how those orders were carried out were made public. Readers will find a calm telling of the story via Google – Somalia Affair/The Canadian Encyclopedia. My warning that it is unpleasant reading, is not given lightly.

Canada’s “best of the best” soldiers had a novel trap to catch thieves. They placed food and drink just inside the wire perimeter base with an easy to spot gap in the wire. One night they arrested a 16-year-old lad in the act of stealing the food.

Arrested in the act it was later admitted at trial the boy was … “tied up and beaten and tortured … the soles of his feet burned with a cigarillo … his shins struck with an iron bar as he pleaded with the soldiers to stop … crying “Canada, Canada, Canada … he was dead by morning … Much of his suffering was photographed by his abusers.”

Among them were Master Corporal Clayton Matchee and Private Kyle Brown. Three days after his arrest, Matchee attempted to hang himself with his shoelaces but succeeded only in permanently damaging his brain. He never left hospital. Brown was tried, found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in jail but was released after less than two years. Only one officer was ever charged with a minor offence of “encouraging a culture of aggression.”

In November 1994, then Prime Minister Chretien ordered the disbandment of the entire Canadian Airborne Regiment. In 1995, a Commission of Inquiry into the deployment of Canadian Forces to Somalia commenced hearings – mostly televised. Military historian David Bercuson called it “the darkest era in the history of the Canadian military since the Second World War.”

Then toward the end of 1996, Chretien abruptly shut down the inquiry saying the people had lost interest and declining further comment.

Maybe he was right and still is, but there are also a lot of people in this world who don’t like unfinished business. It could be that some of them know that the “final report” of the Chretien commission in the summer of ’97 was not final at all but was, as Canadian Encyclopedia describes it, “an incomplete accounting of the scandal because the $25 million inquiry was shut down before it had even investigated the details of the actual atrocities in Somalia. As a result, the report focuses mainly on what it considered to be the institutional failures of the armed forces that led to those crimes, and what is described as a cover-up by military leaders.”

I’m sure many representatives of small countries voting last week at the UN had read every word there is to read on the Somalia Affair with special attention to the “evasion and deceptions which were apparent with many of the senior officers who testified before us (and) reveal much about the poor state of leadership in our armed forces and the careerist mentality that prevails at the Department of National Defence.”

And if they read that just before they voted on the Security Council seat – no wonder the UN delegates opted for Norway and Ireland. Canada and its peacekeepers got lost somewhere along the way.

Trump -The Antithetical

It didn’t take long to clear the placard-waving, chanting crowd from Lafayette Square and neighbouring streets on the first day of June. The small park in Washington DC is close to the White House and just a short walk from the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, better known as “The Church of the Presidents.”

Since the early 1800s, when the church was built, all but one sitting president has attended services at St. John’s or just dropped in to sit quietly and maybe ask for guidance in affairs of state.

And, on June 1st, President Donald Trump needed St. John’s, not for worship or prayer – but simply as a backdrop for what he felt would be an uplifting speech for a nation being ripped apart by dissent.

With a cluster of sycophants, the president strolled the now-empty street. As his ego demanded, he was a few steps ahead of the group until they reached an official St. John’s notice board with an outer wall of the church as background.

He stood for a moment, trying hard to convert a smirky grin into his version of a confident leader’s smile. In his right hand, the president held a book but didn’t open it. His support group shuffled to one side, knowing better than to intrude even peripherally when the king is on camera.

The cameraman capturing this shameful photographic opportunity was filming a rehearsed vanity in praise of Trump. He may also have been shooting the opening of one of the final chapters marking the fall from grace of a once-great nation – the United States of America.

It has never been acknowledged who ordered the small army of police officers, secret service personnel and fully armed National Guard soldiers to charge the crowd in Washington on June 1st. But, charge they did with nightsticks and batons swinging, shields used as battering rams.

Stunned by the ferocity of the charge, the crowd fell back as smoke, tear gas, pepper balls, and a few high-noise density firecrackers burst among them. If protesters fell or were knocked down, other protesters carried them away or tried to drag them from the path of the advancing juggernaut.

When the street was proclaimed safe, and President Trump did his victory stroll to St. John’s Church, his public relations department termed it “a brave walk” with a Winston Churchill look. They have no shame.

Neither does President Trump who laced his mini-speech at St. John’s – and later on Twitter – with a promise of more militant solutions to protest marchers. He was really a man of peace, a law and order man and would settle dissent. The people wanted calm, he said, and he would bring it even if it took trained soldiers to achieve his aims.

Suppression by force of arms is the ultimate solution in his playbook. When the message was delivered outside St. John, the president and his acquiescent ego-chamber strolled back to the well-protected White House.

I leave it to the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, Mariann Budde, to politely comment on the June 1st decision to drive protesters from the streets. The bishop said it was wrong to use tear gas and other weaponry “as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.”

“Antithetical” was a new word to me. The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides this definition: “Being in direct and unequivocal opposition: directly opposite.”


“Here Mate, Let Me Help…”

It’s 5 p.m., a bright warm promise of a summer evening. The spacious courtyard approach to the main entrance to Victoria General Hospital has a clean-swept deserted look. A few well-washed wooden benches where patients with mobility can sit and converse with visiting family are empty in the sun.

Well, not quite empty. One man and two women are sitting far apart waiting for friends, or maybe they’re staffers taking a well-earned break from the pressure cooker of a large general hospital in pandemic times.

The glass entrance doors hiss open and clank shut as the three, their sun break over, precede me into the main lobby where their identity as patient or staff is confirmed. A nod from security staff, followed by what has become the ritual washing of hands with germ-killing lotions, and they are on their way down the long corridors to wherever they belong in the hospital labyrinth.

I bring up the rear to answer a brief, polite questioning. Do I have a temperature? Have I travelled outside Canada in recent weeks? Have I been in the company of anyone known to be inflected to COVID-19? Half-a-dozen other easy-to-answer questions from runny nose to routine feeling unwell follow, and my negative responses lead to the final: “Are you here to visit someone or as an outpatient?” I respond: “The latter and looking for directions to Medical Imaging.”

Then comes the wash hands routine and, as I’m already wearing a mask, I’m on my way “down the main corridor, past the gift shop, keep walking until you see the electronic imaging sign. It’s clearly marked.” It is, and I’m right on time – 20 minutes ahead of my 5:30 appointment.

Check-in is simple once I can flash my relatively new BC Services Card issued a few months back when I “surrendered” my treasured driver’s licence for the BC Services Card and my new BC Identity Card.

Waved through to a waiting room across a corridor lined with patients on beds or stretchers, I carelessly dropped my wallet spilling ID cards across the floor. For a 96.6-year-old, that spells disaster because the floor is no longer as close as it used to be. There was a time, and not so long ago, that I would have just bent over, scooped the wandering cards up and carried on. Alas, the floor these days is a long way away, and any attempt to reach it, slowly or in haste, is extremely hazardous.

As I contemplate the scene, there’s a stirring in one of the corridor beds where a young man waits to be moved for treatment or a procedure. Before I can make what would surely be a disastrous lurch, he rolls off his bed, takes three or four steps and says very quietly: “Here, mate, let me help you,” and with one motion swoops down, picks up the straying cards and is back in his bed before his attendant knows he’s been up and about.

I have to pass his bed to get to my rendezvous with the imaging machine scheduled to take an inside look at a lung that tends to misbehave with COPD. It gives me time to thank him for his kind help. “No problem, mate. A pleasure to be able to help.” 

“Stay well,” I say. “You too, mate,” he replies with a face-wide, genuinely joyful grin. 

I wanted to share this story today in the hope that in this vastly troubled world we find ourselves living in, it might just bring readers a little of the joy it brought me. Just a vignette, the briefest of scenes, but we can dream that one day it might become as contagious as COVID-19.