Month: October 2016

Still Searching for Compassion and Tolerance

It was the late Rosemary Brown who said if she were ever to write a book about Canada and its people the first line would read: “Canadians are a compassionate and tolerant people – at least that’s what they tell me.” Things may have changed a little for the better since the first black woman to be elected to a senior parliamentary body in Canada made that statement close to 20-years ago. But not that much.

Rosemary ended her struggle for equal rights for women in April 2003 when her voice of reason was silenced by a heart attack. Some 13-years later Canadians continue to see themselves as members of a compassionate and tolerant nation – and there are all too few Rosemary Brown replacements to remind us, as she constantly reminded us, of our deficiencies in that regard.

In a speech on sexism and racism delivered February 1, 1990, at the University of Ottawa, Rosemary said racism and sexism were two words “which I keep hoping, quite frankly, will disappear from practice and certainly from discussion – but it doesn’t seem as though that’s about to happen. So far they have defied the passage of time and every method which has been utilized to eliminate them.”

Sixteen years later they continue to defy the passage of time. It is true in recent years many women have climbed a shade higher on the equality chart, but there’s still a long way to go before women, all women, stand fully recognized as equal with men. It is important to remember Rosemary’s call for equal rights was just that with the heavy emphasis on “equal” and not just for women but for all human beings.

As a member of the BC Legislature 1972- 1982 she gave as good as she got in the bear pit called the Legislative Chamber. She expected no mercy in the cut and thrust of the take-no-prisoners debates that rattled the Bellville Street precinct close to 45-years ago. She stood her ground even when facing the chain-saw rampages of Don Phillips – the MLA television reporter Andy Stephen nicknamed the “leather lunged, silver tongued, orator from the Big Sky country of the Peace.”

It was during a Rosemary speech decrying the state of health care in northern BC (and yes, it’s still a problem) while debating a vote of non-confidence in Premier Bill Bennett, that the prince of hecklers Phillips snapped: “You’ve never been north of Hope!”. Rosemary responded with a courteous “Did the minister say I’d never been north of Hope?” and Bob McClelland, chimed in: “You’ve never been north of Madam Runge’s”.

Madame Runge’s was a ladies’ fashion boutique in Vancouver. Rosemary, always elegantly dressed without making extravagant fashion statements, was outraged that a serious debate on health care problems in the north should become a discussion of her wardrobe.

“What nonsense,” she replied. “You are never correct about anything. That’s the reason we have (this) vote of non-confidence in the Premier, because he (like you) is so round about. He’s incompetent. You’re all incompetent – with the exception of the minister of human resources – who is (both) incompetent and ambitious. That’s the only thing that makes a difference from the rest of you….”

Then she zeroed in on Phillips referring to him as “the old roto-rooter himself called in to try and stall the debate” and adding a final zap she asked the assembly “you know what a roto-rooter does, don’t you?”

The Speaker thought her words improper and suggested she withdraw. Rosemary demurely did, but with a flickering grin of no regrets replied – “ (actually) I like the minister’s talent to be a roto-rooter …but it is an indication of how desperate they are over there when he stands up….and (is) suddenly talking about decorum….a topic of which he has no knowledge, no understanding.”

No one was safe when Rosemary rose in her wrath. When another minister rose to defend his Premier she dismissed him as a “limping minister offering lame duck support” having “the nerve to stand up on the floor of this House and throw up a smokescreen to clothe that Emperor of his who is never present….that unseen guest who floats in and out of here….floating like a bee and stinging like a butterfly….”

Highways Minister Alex Fraser tried a diversion: “Are you going to run federally?” he shouted at Rosemary: “Not as long as you’re here, baby. I’ve got to keep an eye on you,” came the taught reply.

Rival politicians were not the only ones to feel a Rosemary sting. In an interview on television I once launched a question so long and involved even I couldn’t remember what I was asking. Rosemary, who always knew exactly where tv cameras were pointing, looked through the lens into a million living rooms and sweetly responded: “Mr. Hume I’ll be kind. I won’t ask you to repeat the question.” I remained silent for the rest of the show.

Rosemary Browne, a rare woman who deserves to be remembered – not just by women for whom she fought so hard but by everyone who dreams of the day when the words sexism and racism will be erased from memory to be replaced by compassion and tolerance: and the age-old claim that all men and women are created equal can become reality.

Choosing An All-Star Government

I had this great idea for a new game to play on nights when television offers no release from the cares of the day. I would sit quietly and review the life and times of provincial politicians and select the team I thought would make an all-star dream team to govern my home province – British Columbia. 

A bit like selecting a favourite sports team dotted with players past and present.

I was in trouble from the get-go. Who would top my list as Premier, the person best equipped to navigate our ship of state through the troubled waters we sail today? The selection list isn’t long with only 35 Premiers listed since November 1871 when John Foster McCreight became the first and March, 2011 when Christy Clark became the last. Maybe, with an election pending next year, it would be wiser to say “most recent.”

Anyway, to me the immediate response was an easy decision for first choice of W.A.C Bennett who captained the team from 1952 to 1972. There can be no challenge to the fact that in his 20 years he achieved many things from the electrification of the province to the hydro power developments that made it possible. But then, I thought what about Richard McBride who served as leader for only half the time of W.A.C. but can be credited with bringing order to what was chaotic political disarray between 1903 and 1915. He was affectionately and cheerfully known as “the people’s Dick” and when he was knighted and became Sir Richard the nickname never changed and the people rejoiced in his honour.

Then there’s Premier William Richards “Bill” Bennett, son of W.A.C., who wore the captain’s armband from 1975 to 1986, brought mega economic expansion to the province and held government fiscally stable during the toughest recession since the Dirty Thirties.

At this point my ambition to create a comfortable winter entertainment ended. The only clear decision I could make was that picking an all-star Premier was impractical, impossible and too exhausting. I concluded that every one of the 35 we have so far witnessed in action, even the ones who brought confusion to the office and left even more behind when they departed, contributed to the way of life we enjoy today. A way of life full of problems – but pretty good nevertheless when we look at the rest of the world.

Readers shouldn’t let my failure to name an all-star premier prevent them from the fun of trying. New Democrats might have some difficulty because they don’t have much of a list to choose from. Of the four 1990s NDP Premiers only Mike Harcourt – November 1991 – February 1996 – served long enough to rate all-star selection. The other three were in the NDP revolving door years post-Harcourt: Glen Clark, Dan Miller and Ujjal Dosanjh. So NDPers might fare better trying team selections among some of their former giants like Bill King, Dennis Cocke, and Bob Williams who could justifiably claim all-star status when they served the province respectively and so well as ministers of labour, health, and lands and forests.

Two NDP Premiers added much to a “captain’s” stature when they held the title but too briefly to achieve long term ambitions. Dave Barrett deserves a clear gold star for his contribution both as Leader of the Opposition and his three plus years as Premier; as does Miller who held the NDP together and kept government functioning between August, 1999 and February, 2000, while the party sorted out the disarray after Clark’s brief tenure. Dan was, and remains, an unsung hero.

Only one guarantee for readers prepared to cast their minds in review: They will realize that in little more than two decades our Legislature has lost a few giants. Where once it was hard to choose an all-star, it’s now hard to find one.

 

 

Tribute To An Old Friend

Close to 50 years ago a brash politician preparing to face a television panel of three hard-nosed Legislative Press Gallery reporters was introduced by moderator Andy Stephen as the “leather-lunged, silver-tongued orator from the Big Sky country of the Peace.”

It became the politician’s cherished trademark for next half century and was a featured phrase in most Canadian newspapers recording his death in Australia on October 5, 2016. He was 87.

“The Peace” was his treasured Peace River District of British Columbia, Canada, a land almost as vast as Australia’s Outback but with rolling grasslands stretching from horizon to horizon beneath a sky – a big sky – that takes the breath away.

The politician was Donald McGray Phillips, first elected MLA in 1966. After one term he declined to run in the 1969 election, but returned to the fray in 1972 to again win South Peace River and become one of 10 Social Credit members to survive the great NDP triumph of that year.

He spent the next three years working with a handful of other party survivors to re-build the shattered Socreds and prepare for the next election. It came surprisingly early with voting day December 11, 1975, a day that ended with the return to power of Social Credit and a new Premier W.R. “Bill” Bennett, son of W.A.C. Bennett, in command.

Don Phillips had nominated the son to replace his father after “the old man” stepped down.

As a reward for his efforts to rebuild the party and for his loyalty to father and son, plus his feisty energy in any project undertaken, he was appointed to Bill Bennett’s first cabinet with economic development his priority.

Although honed by three years in opposition where MLAs can attack government with scatter gun noise and inaccuracy – and Don often did with sound and fury signifying nothing – he was still a rookie as a cabinet minister when facing for the first time the challenge of knowledgeable reporters with the unforgiving eye of a television camera waiting to capture every slip of the tongue or error of fact.

He was meat for the media grinder. Or, should have been. But questions designed to embarrass or intimidate the new minister were swept aside by a tidal wave of verbosity. The man from the Peace had no intention of changing his style.

People who knew him in youth say he was always like that – outspoken, confident, energy driven, determined to succeed. Those were the qualities he took to the Ford Motor Company when he joined the firm on the lowest rung of the company ladder, a ladder he eventually climbed to outright ownership of a full service car dealership in Dawson Creek plus other business interests.

He took those same qualities to high office. His achievements in economic benefits to his province and country have long been recorded.

Among his heroes were Norman Vincent Peale, of Power of Positive Thinking fame. and W.A.C. Bennett, Premier of BC for 20 years from 1955 to 1975. Like his political hero Don was a big project thinker, always positive his ideas would work and endowed with  the energy and determination to make sure that for the most part they did.

Like Bennett, he was a politician from the old school, a barnstormer on the hustings, not too sure of his grammar and often with suspect phraseology – but in a strange way, always clear in his message. Listeners knew what he meant even when he described socialist rivals as “leopards who couldn’t change their stripes.” He may have spoken in fractured English – but there was never any doubt about what he meant.

It seems ironic that the two failures in his body that brought his death on October 5 were in the heart and lungs, the two organs that brought him so many triumphs in business and in politics. Maybe he just wore them out.

Don was not a militant Christian or a regular church goer. But, he held firm to Christian principles and teachings and, in his quieter moments, confessed he believed in their greatest promise.

Christina Rossetti put that promise into a poem 150 or more years ago. She wrote that death was just that: Rest: “…a stillness that is almost Paradise….a darkness more clear than noonday…a silence more musical than any song….(where) the very heart has ceased to stir until the morning of eternity…the rest will not begin, nor end, but be…..and when he wakes he will not think it long.”

So, old “leather lungs” R.I.P – and be long remembered.

(Fans of Rossetti will notice my minor tweak to her words – and will hopefully approve.)

 

A Long, Loyal, Friendship Trail

It is almost 60 years since we last met. We are three old men with wavering memories when it comes to dates, but crystal clear memories when it comes to events.

We can remember it was 1957 when a group of friends organized a farewell party for me on the eve of my departure from the rain-soaked Alberni Valley to Penticton in the desert-dry Okanagan Valley.

It was in May of ’57 that I became managing editor of the Penticton Herald with the responsibility of taking the newspaper daily in the fall of the year.

The other two members of this trio of 80 to 90 year olds recollect a momentous farewell party on the shores of Sproat Lake in a cabin kindly loaned for the occasion by Alberni Mayor Ben Wright.

Wondering who forms this memory testing trio? Thought you might: There’s Bob Thorp, 82, a 25-year veteran with the RCMP. His first assignment was to the City of Alberni detachment. He was a 19-year-old constable, the “rookie” on a four man force. Readers with any knowledge of Vancouver Island will remember that in the 1950s Alberni and Port Alberni were rival cities with their own city council, their own mayor, their own RCMP detachment.

After 25 years with the force Bob “retired” with the rank of Staff Sergeant and became a security officer for a bank. After 40 years tracking cheque bouncers and other illegal financial manipulators he retired again and settled in Tsawwassen.

Next is Jim Sawyer, in his late 80s. We first met when he was a junior of juniors at Nanaimo City Hall and I was a fledgling sports editor, sports reporter, columnist, court reporter and spare time features writer. Jim was coach of a young lacrosse team. I can’t remember if they ever won a championship, but I can remember the years I was being educated in the sport and also learning about basic city administration.

Jim climbed the administration ladder with a promotion to Alberni where he became city clerk. Shortly after the two cities amalgamated in the 1960s to become Port Alberni, he assumed the role of city manager. He held that position until he retired a few decades later. He never left the Valley – except on extended holidays and for duties as President of Alberni Rotary.

So, with all three players accounted for, we decided to convene in the Valley of our professional youth and remember what we learned from each other in the process of growing. Over the years I have often referred to my coming of age as a political reporter in the boiler room of the old Alberni City Hall where I would join the mayor and his administrator for a post meeting review of events.

I learned, and never forgot, that more decisions are made in boiler rooms, or their equivalent, than are ever made in a formal council chamber.

At the same time I was getting a closer look at police work in a small detachment in a small community where everybody seemed to know everybody and crime was the same as in a big city, although not as voluminous. Bob Thorp and his fellow officers allowed me a detailed look at their work load and a close up look at police work.

I have never lost my respect for the RCMP, a respect the Alberni officers earned. In later years and not so long ago colleagues and readers would call me “a cop lover.” I regarded it as a compliment because having seen them at work I knew then and know now that they stand between me and the ever growing darkness in the world.

Moving this ramble along, Thorp caught a 7 a.m. ferry on Monday, October 3. We drove to Alberni with one stop at the Shady Rest coffee shop in Qualicum for lunch. After lunch we cut across the Island from east coast to west where Sawyer and wife played host and we started down a long lane of memories.

On Tuesday from breakfast to bed time the trail of memories continued with Sawyer providing a long tour of the Valley with Thorp and me requiring patient explanations because once familiar landscapes have long since been replaced by the ever expanding city.

On Wednesday morning we had breakfast, climbed in Thorp’s car and drove home, over the Beaufort Mountains and, of course, the Malahat Drive which is rapidly being ruined as a scenic drive by concrete barriers and mini-fences. The politicians say it’s all for safety.

A dozen RCMP officers posted from one end of the ‘Hat to the other could have made the mountain road a lot safer at half the cost and not spoiled the beauty of the highway we had travelled in our younger years.

In three days, we had covered three life journeys. By golly it felt good to go back wandering through those years when we were just starting to learn what life was all about – and to confirm what we had always known but sometimes forget – strong friendships stand the test of time.

And now, well past 80, that’s a good feeling.

 

They Also Pay Who Only Stand and Wait

It cost me $12 to get a seat in Royal Jubilee’s emergency ward waiting room last Monday. Not a comfortable seat. Rather, one surrounded by Victoria’s halt, lame and partially blind waiting for an overworked doctor or nurse to ease their pain after hopefully diagnosing its cause.

The $12 charge for the right to wait four to five hours for pain relief is resented, but that resentment does not extend to the quality of medical care that emergency patients eventually receive. I know they get the best care doctors and nurses can offer and that our medical services plan, while not as free as government likes to suggest, makes it affordable.

It’s the charging of $1.50 for every waiting hour I find inexcusable. And for the record, I feel the same way about the parking charges squeezed from people visiting sick friends confined to hospitals and in need of good cheer and friendship to help them in their fight for better health.

I was such a “visitor” to emergency last Monday, just the driver and helping hand for an old friend in great pain from a hip complaint. We had been forwarded from her doctor’s surgery. He felt emergency would be the best way to find out what had happened to cause her left leg to crumble like a broken wing whenever she put pressure on it. Walking was impossible without a human crutch to lean on. The pain intense.

It was around one o’clock on Monday afternoon when we checked in, followed the green dots from registration to the waiting room where an ominous notice board greeted newcomers with a warning that the average waiting time for treatment would be four to five hours. The room was full, every chair occupied. A wall notice requested that people not requiring treatment refrain from occupying seats needed by patients.

We were lucky. Within minutes a seat became vacant.. It gave me time to seat my friend and head for the parking lot to feed the first of a small fortune of one and two dollar coins into a voracious meter offering two hours for $3.

Ever the optimist I paid for two hours at a dollar fifty an hour. At three o‘clock I paid for another two; at five two more and at seven after a final installment I had one hour left on my final ticket when we left for home just after 8 p.m.

Nobody offered me a refund for the unspent hour.

The waiting room crowd of sick and injured grew as afternoon merged into evening and the warning of a four to five hour wait changed to five or six. High on one wall a flat screen TV offered the Trump-Clinton debate – without sound. I suppose one could regard that as a bonus.

The only other distraction from personal woes was the steady arrival of men and women, young, old and middle aged with broken limbs, hobbled walks; some in wheel chairs like an elderly gentleman of Chinese descent having trouble with a bloody nose. A Saanich policeman chats with him and stays alongside until he’s suddenly surrounded by family, likely his elderly wife, a daughter and grandson age around six or seven who puts on a delightful “invisible magician” show for the old man – and the fascinated crowd of walking wounded. For a few minutes a child has made them forget their pains and problems. The applause is quiet but spontaneous.

Over to one side a silver haired lady sits wrapped in blankets. On one of my meter plugging runs her companion has wheeled her outside where she sits majestically, triumphantly, smoking a cigarette. I get the impression that the cure for whatever ails her will be defied.

And through all the seeming chaos and muffled conversations the doctors and nurses move quietly and efficiently but the crowd never seems to diminish. Our turn comes, my friend is checked out, x-rayed, blood tested and told we can go home with a sobering admonition to take a new medication to reduce or eliminate the pain “as directed and if it doesn’t work check back in to emergency.”

There’s no verdict yet on the new medication and no sure diagnosis of the cause. But there’s always hope. We have organized a home care program. It’s far more expensive than a hospital stay – which may well become necessary – but its “home.”

And there is no charge for visitors.