Month: February 2015

Meaning “never again”

Sometimes we let our emotions race ahead of reason and we make decisions we later come to regret. And I think the recent cheers of triumph and jeers of contempt as the first steps to remove abandoned St. Michael’s Indian Residential School from the face of the earth were taken are a case in point.

The school should have been preserved as a ghastly monument to the evil “civilized” people can do to their fellows when cloaked in religious fervor, convinced that their way of life is the only way and that it was sinful to hold any other belief. It has been written in newspapers, and our first nations appear to believe, that with the bricks and mortar of St. Michael’s removed from Alert Bay “an important step has been taken in the healing process” and we can just say we’re sorry and get on with life. That is a comforting lie, but still a lie. Simply removing a structure in which bigotry, physical domination and intimidation were the norm does not mean “out of sight, out of mind.”

We need more than personal memories which can be embellished and polished by time to remind us that “the heart of man can be deceitful above all things and desperately wicked”. Sometimes we need more than bronze plaques on a wall to remind us where evil once held sway – with our approval.

One of the first decisions of the newly created Irish Free State in 1924 was to decommission Kilmainham Jail – or Gaol to use the Irish term. Kilmainham had been built in 1796. In its early days Kilmainham –”the Bastille of Ireland” – offered public hangings outside the front gates, a practice ending around 1820.

It was a handle-all prison with men, women and children incarcerated and up to five prisoners to a cell. Most of the children were there for petty theft, women from petty theft to prostitution, and most males for any crime known to man. The cells had no heat or running water – but each cell was provided with a candle. It was expected to last two weeks. Meals were described as “primitive”.

Kilmainham was a bad place to be at any time but didn’t reach its lowest ebb until Easter, 1916; the year Irish rebels attempted the wrest control of their country from England. The 100th anniversary of “The Rising” will be celebrated next year because although it failed in 1916 it did lead to Ireland’s freedom as a nation a few years later – with events at Kilmainham playing a key role.

As the rebellion was put down many arrests were made and retribution was swift for 16 “leaders”. Having signed the rebellion manifesto they were all, quickly sentenced to death. Two – Countess Constance Markiewicz because of her sex, and Eamonn de Valera because he could claim U.S citizenship via his father – were sentenced to jail time.

The other 14 were executed by firing squad over a nine day period, executions which shocked the world and turned sympathy for England’s cause to world-wise revulsion – with one execution among the many summing up the brutality that had been Kilmainham’s norm for more than a hundred years.

When the time came for James Connolly, 48, to face the firing squad he was in hospital being treated for chest wounds and severe leg injuries sustained in the fighting. One leg was diagnosed gangrenous. Unable to walk Connolly was taken by ambulance from hospital to Kilmainham where he was carried to a courtyard, strapped to a chair and shot.

Kilmainham had reached its lowest point of shame. Eight years later the then Irish Free State shut it down and over the years let it fall apart to dereliction and eventually talk of costly demolition.

Some wanted to erase the wretched history of Kilmainham; others felt the need for a physical, monumental, reminder of Irish history. The latter view prevailed and back in 1958 a Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society was formed. It has been a long road back but in 2015 Kilmainham is again open – but only to thousands of visitors who walk through its main gates every day to shiver in the cold, heartless cell blocks and tremble in shame at the simple wooden cross marking the spot where they tied Connolly to his chair.

It is not the only standing, living, monument to man’s inhumanity. In Europe Hitler’s concentration camps still stand, all with their somber reminder: “Never Again.”

And they tell all their shameful stories with far greater power than a vacant lot.


We should look to unite, not divide

A traditional rumble of discontent followed Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon’s delivery of the Throne Speech on February 10. It was, shouted leaders of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition a “half hour of emptiness”.

NDP leader John Horgan, not well known for thinking before delivering what he thinks are mortal blows to political enemies, accused Premier Clark (author of the speech read by the Lieut.-Governor) of squandering an opportunity to help people “crushed” by higher Hydro bills, increased Medical Service Plan payments and nudging-up ICBC rates.

She should, he implied, have given the Lt.- Gov a magic wand to wave and end the incessant nibbling at what we call our disposable income. If he is elected premier of BC in 2017 he will, presumably, produce that wand himself and we shall all be modestly richer.

But don’t bet on it.

The “speech” – which would be better called a “Reading from the Throne” – was, Hogan said, waste “of a half hour none of us will ever get back”. And the local newspaper piously noted he was commenting on “the speech which traditionally lays out the government’s agenda for the spring sitting of the Legislature.”

Having survived a fair number of Throne Speeches in my decades as a political reporter I can’t remember one that offered a “written in stone” agenda for the future. The best ever offered would be a “shopping list” of things the government would like to do – and that would be a tenuous list to be fleshed out when the annual budget was unveiled – or forgotten because desirable though the dream was, funding  couldn’t be found make it real.

Members of the Legislature – government and opposition – love the so called “debate” that follows the Throne Speech because it gives them a wonderful opportunity to inform all and sundry on almost any topic they choose – mostly a chamber of commerce hymn of praise of the riding they serve. There’s high prestige in getting your name in Hansard.

A trawl through old and growing ancient Throne Speeches reveals a few gems, but very few. The “debate” in praise or critical of the “Speech” is thin in quality of content, but not entirely devoid of profitable information.

Dave Barrett’s first Throne Speech, delivered by Lieutenant Governor John Robert Nicholson on October 18, 1972, was seven paragraphs long, and took three or four minutes to read at a slow, well enunciated pace. It contained only promise “the first guaranteed minimum income of $200 month for senior citizens.” It would cost a “substantial amount of money” but would have high priority because “this wealthy province has the funds available and it is a matter or some urgency that these funds be put into the hands of our senior citizens as quickly as possible.”

There followed a title list of 13 provincial acts the government intended to amend during the legislative session and needed to be formally placed on the legislative agenda. And it was from start to finish the shortest Throne Speech- Opening Day on record.

The debate that followed offered a few bright spots one being a wonderful history lesson by Daisy Webster, NDP, Vancouver South. It was her maiden speech and she used it to deliver a thumb-nail concise history of the socialist movement in Canada. She did mention the Throne Speech but only in fleeting passage and as demanded by protocol.

It’s worth digging out and reading as is the entire record of that day in history when British Columbians witnessed a Legislature dominated for the first time by a socialist party.

Another new member, seconding Daisy Webster’s motion to accept the Throne Speech, was Graham Lea, NDP Prince Rupert. In his maiden speech he took the Legislature on a good humoured tour of his riding but with one serious message: “I think we should always look to unite rather than divide, because it is only together and working together that we can build a better society in British Columbia.”

Sound advice to all MLA’s, new or old but nobody listened back then, and by the sound of the hyped reaction to this year’s innocuous, traditional, opening day on what should simply be a celebration of democracy, nobody’s listening now.

(A Google of The Legislative Assembly of British Columbia will lead  to transcripts of past debates and proceedings)


“In The Name of God – Amen”

I doubt if you have ever heard of him. He was 38 when he died while sailing the Bering Sea off the coast of Kamchatka, ravaged by tuberculosis, reduced, according to his shipmates diaries, “to almost an absolute skeleton” of the man who had sailed them from the far side of the world.

His last will and testament, written August 17, 1779, five days before he died when he must have been feeling a million miles from home, give a measure of the man.

“In the name of God, Amen, I Charles Clerke (Captain) of His Majesty’s Sloop Resolution, having been long in a state of straighten (cct) and not knowing how soon it may please God to remove me from this life, I hereby make this my last will and testament that all my just and lawful debts be paid and which are as follows……”

The list was not long and basically contained the same beneficiaries as his first will, a will made by most early sailors before they launched on voyages of discovery expected to last for years, and from which there was always the danger of no return. One bequest is testimony to Capt. Clerke’s character. He left “to my dear brother and friend Sir John Clerke, Captain in His Majesties (cct) Navy, 10 Guineas”. A generous gesture considering he’d once done hard time for brother John. Another brother didn’t fare nearly as well: ”To my brother Joseph Clerke of Ipswich, Attorney at Law, one Guinea.”

No reasons given for the difference but history tells us when Charles Clerke was posted to Captaincy of Resolution he was in debtors prison serving time for John who had failed to pay back a loan. Charles had been his guarantor. Some historians suggest lawyer-brother Joseph, with only a guinea from his brother’s estate, had been lacking in family loyalty at the time and that it had taken timely intervention by other friends who paid the bills to gain release for Charles in time for him to race to the coast and take command of HMS Discovery. Unfortunately he carried with him the early seeds of Tuberculosis picked up during his grim incarceration in the notorious Fleet Prison. But that wasn’t known when he finally sailed with Capt. James Cook who was in command of and HMS Resolution and overall commander of the expedition. It would be October 4, 1780, before the two ships returned to the Royal Navy yards in Deptford, England – four years, three months and two days after they left. Both ships without their captain.

After Cooke was killed in Hawaii, Clerke, who had succeeded Cook in command, was urged by his officers to set sail for home. Clerke insisted Cook’s intention to make final search for a northern passage from the Pacific to the north Atlantic be carried out. His officers argued he was too ill to again battle arctic ice and gales.

Cook’s remains were committed to the deep; Clerke sailed north to die and be buried – as requested – on land..

His grave was originally near the village of Paratunka on the Kamashatka Peninsula. In 1918 his remains were moved to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy. A Royal Navy memorial stone and a Russian tribute remind the world ”this officer made several trips to the opening of new lands.” In his short life span Clerke had circumnavigated the globe three times and came close to completing a fourth.

The home of his birth, Brook Farm, Braintree Road, Wethersfield, Essex, England, still exists today as a bed and breakfast establishment of high repute but with only modest reference to its most famous resident who had joined the Royal Navy age 13 and 10-years later sailed on HMS Dolphin on his first circumnavigation – an unsuccessful search for Terra Australis Incognito – Australia.

In Wethersfield there’s a wall plate in St Mary’s Church listing Clerke family accomplishments and almost in passing the contributions of Charles. In New Zealand’s, Government House, there hangs a portrait painting of Clerke with a Maori chief. But that’s about all we have a memorial tributes.

In the meantime Capt. Cook continues to command centre stage for northwest and pacific discoveries – and no one can deny the wonders of his perseverance, his discoveries, charts, diaries, maps, and descriptions of worlds once unknown. He will again be remembered and rightly praised for great achievements on the anniversary of his brutal death on a Hawaiian beach on the 14th of February, 1779.

I just thought that this year as that day of remembrance approaches we might spare a few thoughts for Captain Charles Clerke and his lonely Russian grave. He, too, was a man who can teach today’s leaders much about loyalty in leadership and courage in adversity.