Month: June 2015

A Journey To Remember

Hard to believe that it’s been 67 years since I disembarked from R.M.S. Aquitania at Pier 21, Halifax, nervous and a shade fearful of  my too- late-to-change decision.

It was June, 1948, when, with a pregnant wife and 18-month old son, we climbed apprehensively aboard R.M.S Aquitania for the journey from Southampton, England, to Pier 21, Halifax, Nova Scotia. From there we took a smoke and cinder blowing Canadian Pacific Railway immigrant “special” across Canada to Vancouver and CPR ferry to Vancouver Island.

The journey, while energized by adventure, seemed interminable. It took two weeks from my wife’s home in Cleveleys on the Fylde coast of Lancashire to a small James Bay apartment pre-rented for us by Victoria friends we knew only by correspondence. There had been two brief pauses on the way, the first to say goodbye to my folks in the English Midlands, the second to overnight in Southampton the night before we sailed.

The journey had involved trams, taxis, trains and a railway station change in London on a sullen June day, muggy, with thunder rolling around the horizon and a young son, Stephen, already wondering why we weren’t there yet. After a night at the Dolphin Hotel in Southampton we boarded, a little intimidated, what had once been the largest ocean liner in the world and sailed for Canada – a story book world but for us still unknown.  Sixty seven years later I can still remember standing at the ship’s rail and, with a touch of melancholy tinged with anxiety, watching England and home fade into evening mists.

Our two weeks “on the road” from portal to portal was a picnic by comparison with real pioneer immigrants, but not without its moments. The first came when we were assigned our cabins for the crossing to Halifax. We would not be travelling together as family. Joyce would be in a cabin with six other mothers’ with one child, I would be bunked with five other “separated” husbands. I asked if more suitable accommodation was available and was courteously reminded that this was an immigrant ship and we were traveling at immigrant ship rates. Joyce, seven months pregnant, told me not to worry she and Stephen would be okay. And she was and so was I once I traded my lower bunk with the “father” above me who was dreadfully sea-sick. It was safer above than below.

We dined well on the way over. In 1948 food in the UK was still strictly rationed. The Aquitania obviously re-provisioned on the Canadian side of her “immigrant” runs.

Pier 21 in Halifax, now a museum of immigration history, was approached with apprehension. Would our luggage be on the dock as promised? How would we get from dock to the train to take us to Vancouver?  Our luggage was waiting for us – as were considerate bureaucrats who processed we “landed immigrants” speedily and handed us over to CPR people who shepherded us to a monster train and our assigned “home” for the next several days. We had a lower and upper bunks – and at the end of the coach a small lounge area with modest cooking facilities. A bit like a moving campsite, but more than adequate for families who had survived half a dozen years of war time hardship.

As we watched in awe our train clacked through the wilderness called Ontario and young Stephen became listless, restless, and fretful. With no family doctor nearby to attend to our needs the train was canvassed for a doctor. Another young immigrant with a stethoscope appeared to check the lad, diagnose “richer diet and time zone meal-time changes” and suggested we try and get some Woodward’s Gripe Water at the next stop – which would be Sudbury. It was strange to be looking for a drugstore rather than a chemist’s shop; stranger still to be asking so far from home for an old English over-the-counter cure-all for all childhood ills. But, bottle clutched safely in hand, I was back at the train as it started to move West, Stephen was administered a tea spoon or two full of the elixir and soon revived..

Woodward’s Gripe Water became a medicine cabinet fixture and soothed the gums of each of the eventual six Hume sons. It wasn’t until, they were all grown to manhood that I discovered that the original “Gripe Water” contained 3.6 per cent alcohol.

A little weary and overwhelmed by the vastness of Canada, we made it to our first Canadian “home”, a small apartment in James Bay comprised of tiny kitchen, a poky bathroom and a small bed-sitting room. Immigrants a century earlier would have found it of royal suite quality.

Why  am I re-posting all this, a story I’ve told before? Because it will soon be July 1, Canada Day, marking close to seven decades since I asked Canada if I could live and raise a family here. Sixty seven years since Canada said “yes”.

There were a few unexpected, hard to handle, bumps along the way; sad times, sometimes desperate financial times. But over the long haul Canada gave me and my family better lives than we could ever have dreamed. And Canada remains a very special time.

And Canada Day is a good time to remember how fortunate I was, and am, to be Canadian by adoption.

Living In Interesting Times

Nice to know we have a set election date – October 19 – for our next decision on which party we would like to control Canada for the following five years. Not so nice to realize that, throughout what we hope will be a glorious summer, we must now suffer months of boasting or complaining about what the current government has achieved, or failed to achieve, since May 2011 when a skimpy 61 per cent of eligible voters gave Stephen Harper a Conservative majority and the authority to steer the ship of state.

So, with a day of destiny still four months away we are out on the track with a bang, nasty TV commercials already on display and many promises of glories yet to be if only the voters will pay attention, believe, and vote for the most persuasive snake-oil seller.

Prime Minister Harper’s Conservatives were the first with the clever TV snigger campaign commercials questioning the youth of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau for daring to reach for the keys to 24 Sussex Drive at the tender age of 43. If he became Prime Minister in October he would be 44 – three years younger than Prime Minister Harper when he moved in to Sussex Drive.

Joe Clark, Conservative, was 39 when he became PM, Brian Mulroney. 45, Kim Campbell, 46 – Liberal Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father, was 48.

If we jump across the Atlantic we find a really young chap holding the highest political office in the United Kingdom at the age of 24. Fellow by the name William Pitt – better known as Pitt the Younger. “The Younger” was to distinguish him from his father “Pitt the Elder” who had served as PM years earlier.

But back to that TV Commercial with the “he’s not ready” punch line written by somebody lacking political smarts. When just about every other political activist in the country is appealing to young people to get involved in the political process, to participate, to become party-active as well as vote, Conservative recruiters are warning young folk aren’t quite ready. It’s an appeal with dangerous backfire potential

A bit like the old saying of Herbert Hoover when he was President of the USA; “Blessed are the young for they shall inherit the national debt.” A truth – and as funny as urging young people to get active in politics and vote (preferably Conservative) – although even at age 44 they’re not quite ready for responsibility.

There will, I’m sure, be other miscues silly accusations and sillier responses as politicians of all stripes torture us through what will prove to be the hazy day’s summer. Among the best – or worst – will be the slow awakening of the Conservatives that for the first time in any Canadian national election – the Liberals, young and old – will not be their traditional rivals for the right to rule.

For sure it could still shape up to be a fight between the historic old party contestants, but in the early rounds Prime Minister Harper and the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair are in the centre ring. It could get ugly in the final rounds with the young Liberal leader and his people positioned in the unusual role of kingmakers.

Any betting on which way uncertain Liberals would swing if the current three-way fight becomes a Conservative-NDP duel come the Fall? No call yet from this corner. Just watching events unfold knowing only one thing for sure: politically we are living in interesting times.

 

For Whom The Bell Tolls

It was John Donne who close to 400 years ago penned  “no man is an island, entire of its self; every man is part of the continent, part of the main….”, and suggested that when we hear a church bell toll for a death in the community “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

It was the first thought springing to mind a few days ago when an old colleague Roger Stonebanks e-mailed a story from The Guardian with a headline reading in part “the death knell of Journalism.”

The story under Roy Greenslade’s byline opened with a quote from a memo Issued by Britain’s largest regional newspaper publisher, Trinity Mirror, to staff members in Birmingham and Coventry: “The days are long gone when we could afford to be a paper of record and dutifully report everything that happened on our patch.”

Greenslade: “That is not a spoof….It is an abject admission that the newspaper is no longer able to fulfill it journalistic mission to provide comprehensive coverage in two major British cities.”

Trinity Mirror’s internal memo claimed the job cuts (25, mostly editorial, in each city) would not reduce the quality or quantity of local coverage because digital tools would enable fewer staff to do the same work.

Greenslade: “Just the opposite is the case. The cuts reveal a truth that Trinity Mirror (and other publishers) have previously denied; they are all about private profit and not about public interest.”

The Guardian and Greenslade do not decry the digital revolution and the many benefits it has brought: “The digital revolution enables us to be free of restrictions. But mainstream media is engaged in a counter revolution. It is perverting the ethos of that revolution because it views the online world through the prism of profit and not public benefit.

“It makes much of using digital tools, but that’s a façade to enable staff reductions. Labour-intensive journalism is not required. Just bang it out quickly as possible…..and move on to the next ‘story’ about a cat with two tails.”

If the tolling of a newspapers’ death bell sounds familiar to my home town readers in Victoria B.C. Canada, it’s because they have been living with its mournful sounds for several decades now. Maybe they have grown so familiar that it is now just a background chime, and of little concern.

Or maybe, hopefully, it will remind us all of the days when reporters like the one who sparked this piece were assigned to and responsible for specific “beats.” Local readers will remember when Roger covered Saanich, or when he patrolled the “labour” beat or from his years covering “the courts” from Magistrates to Supreme.

Those were the days when our daily newspaper really covered the city – and beyond. One reporter for each municipality, one for Capital Regional District, two for the provincial government when in session. One for maritime news, naval and commercial with “stringers” up-island and two or three columnists tossed in to stir the mix.

In Victoria the Times and the Colonist were newspapers “of record”, and so was the amalgamated Times-Colonist. On the lower mainland and throughout the province the Vancouver Sun and Province held sway though most communities were proudly served by smaller newspaper owned by local publishers and editors who believed providing comprehensive community news a duty.

Alas, no longer. The men in suits took over. Small newspapers were bought and controlled by boardrooms in Toronto or other far from local places; increasing annual profits each year became more important than serving the communities that had made founding publishers comfortably profitable.

New owner-publishers wanted to know how much they could take, not how much they could give. A local name would remain on the editorial page masthead – but control would be remote.

The Times-Colonist, my own newspaper home for half a century, no longer carries its publisher’s name on its editorial page masthead. Maybe one day the editor-in-chief could write a piece telling us why. In the same community service piece he could also explain why he can’t hire enough staff to responsibly cover the community he is supposed to serve, but can assign current staff writers to spend time and effort writing comfort prose for a glossy magazine insert.

The glossy looks smart. But adds nothing to “meat and potatoes” news. In reality it’s just another peal of John Donne’s bell for a death in the community.  We don’t need to ask for whom it tolls.

References: http://holdthefrontpage.co.uk/2015/news/daily-no-longer-its-city’s-paper-of-record/ and http://theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2015/jun/10/one-trinity/

Death Without Mercy

They found the bodies on the slush-iced banks of Fraser Lake. Four children, the oldest age nine, the youngest seven. Three were huddled in each other’s arms “capless and lightly clad”, frozen in the final dark embrace of a January night. The fourth child had fallen and died alone 80-feet away.

It was January 2, 1937, with the temperature at 20-below and falling and the children Alan Wilie, 9, Andrew Paul and Justa Maurice 8, and John Michael Jack, 7, were runaways from the Lelac Indian Residential School where they that been arbitrarily confined to be educated by Catholic priests who spoke limited English – and punished students caught conversing in their tribal tongue.

There was a Coroner’s Inquiry into the deaths of the children with newspapers of the day almost triumphantly reporting no blame should be attached to those responsible for the school located some 50 miles west of Prince George and half a dozen from the Nautley Reserve homes of the four runaways.

“Indian School Authorities Absolved in Lake Tragedy” read one; “No blame in boys’ death” echoed another. And the Catholic priest who ran Lelac suggested it was really the failure of parents to discipline their children that led to the deaths of  the Lelac four.

The Coroner’s report tells a different story.

School Principal Father Patrick MacGrath, testifying at the Inquiry convened by local Coroner C. Pitts, MD, set the scene of casual indifference of staff towards students on the day the drama began. He told the Inquiry “I had been away all day on January 1st returning at 5 p.m. but it was not until 9 p.m that I first heard that four boys were missing.”  Four boys aged 7, 8 and 9 missing on an afternoon with temperatures already below zero and falling fast and no one thought to inform the principal for four hours? He testified the runaways were “first reported to Bishop Caudert”, but didn’t clarify what time the Bishop had been alerted or what, if any, action had been taken by him.

He told the Inquiry that he “knew the parents of these boys were at the Nautley Reserve and felt quite sure that they – the runaway boys – had reached the reserve by that time.” Testimony by BC Provincial Police Constable H.J. Jennings placed the dead boys three quarters of a mile short of Nautley reserve when they fell and froze to death. The constable estimated they had been walking for six hours before they collapsed. Cnst. Jennings testified that when found the boys were wearing “underwear, blue denim shirts, overalls, heavy woolen socks, low rubbers. No hats. One boy had lost one rubber and sock. His foot was bare. Three were lying huddled together. The fourth, some 80 feet away, died alone.”

Father MacGrath seemed less aware of distances. He said he was sure the runaways had used the railway track for their sub-zero hike because that was the route usually taken by truants “going home”. He said “I decided to send a car for them the next morning” then added as philosophical aside the most damning condemnation of the school he administered: ”When children run away they are always welcomed home by their parents and not sent back by them.”

Father MacGrath testified it was noon Jan 2 before the school officials got to question mothers and fathers of the Nautley Reserve – and to search several homes to make sure the boys were not being hidden. Yes, you read it correctly, “to search several homes to make sure parent were not hiding their children.”.

At “about four o‘clock I went home,” MacGrath testified, “(then) “at 7 pm I was notified by phone that the bodies of the four boys had been located.” He expressed surprise that the four dead children had fled the school 16-hours earlier so inadequately clothed and blamed them for being unprepared. “They could have obtained more clothing from the playhouse and might have taken clothes without being seen.”

The jury found “more definite action by the school authorities might or should have been taken…..that more cooperation between authorities and parents would lessen the incidence of runaways” and that excessive corporal punishment should be limited. It strongly recommended there would be”better understanding between pupils and disciplinarians if the latter were English speaking.”

Just to make sure everyone knew blame should never be ascribed to him or the church his signed statement ends: “Ninety per cent of our children are present (at the school) against their parents’ wishes and are not disciplined by their parent when they do run away so that it is hard to prevent them.” His conscience was clear. Parents were to blame.

(I first wrote about the four Lelac School children in March 2013. Figured the story worthy of a repeat as we await full publication of Justice Murray Sinclair’s report on Canada’s genocide years. It will be just one among thousands)