Month: March 2018

Bob Strachan a Leader Well Remembered

I think the poet Robert Browning was a little premature when he penned those immortal words: “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.” That one line gave generations of grey hairs the illusion the “golden age” was about to begin. However, he was only 77 when he died so he was still on the outer perimeter of life, walking on strong legs and able to tie his shoelaces as fast as an eyelash wink.

It’s after 80 for most of us that the body’s underpinning gets wobbly without the aid of a walker or a strong stick, and totally irrelevant thoughts bubble unprompted and unexplained to mind. This morning I woke up thinking clearly about an old friend first met in the Palace Hotel, Nanaimo, in 1953 and I had no idea what had triggered Bob Strachan from dark night shadows to bright morning memories.

And if you’re asking “Bob who?” I shall be delighted to tell you because Robert Martin “Bob” Strachan was the longest-serving leader (April 6,1956-April 12,1969) of the British Columbia Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) which later became the New Democratic Party (NDP).

Bob immigrated to Canada from Scotland and worked as a $10 a week farm labourer in Nova Scotia in the late 1920s before moving west to BC – first to Anyox, then Powell River and eventually the Nanaimo area. Always an active unionist, Bob had become head of the BC Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

He was elected MLA for the old riding of Cowichan-Newcastle in 1952 and won eight elections in a row – four for the CCF and four for the NDP before retiring from politics in 1975, the year he was appointed BC’s agent-general to the UK. He had been the leader of the party since April 6, 1956, and had won a significant membership challenge to his leadership in 1967 but stepped down a year later to clear the way for up and coming brilliant lawyer Tom Berger  – the man he had defeated in the membership vote – to now inherit the leader’s mantle and lead the party in the next election..

The NDP membership went into the general election of 1969 with a huge expectation that Berger, having replaced the strong trade unionist carpenter, would convince the electorate to take a chance on the moderate intellectual lawyer.

The membership was wrong. The NDP not only lost the election; it lost Berger its new leader in Vancouver-Burrard. Three years later, Dave Barrett finally led the NDP to the promised land of government for one short term in office before being defeated in 1975 by Bill Bennett’s Social Credit coalition.

It would be 1991 before the NDP was given a second chance with Mike Harcourt at the helm. By then, memories of the Scottish carpenter, who had died in 1981 of lung cancer, were fading.

As noted earlier I first met Bob in 1953 when I was sports editor, sports reporter, court reporter, general reporter and reporter of anything else that didn’t have a title. I was introduced to him by Frank Crane who was deeply involved in hockey and the BC Liberal Party. I can no longer remember who had the office on the second floor of the Palace; just that it was where I first met Bob on a hot summer’s day and got my first taste of political reporting. They really were different days; not necessarily “good old days,” just different. Bob and Frank discussed politics calmly and challenged without rancour each other’s views.

I was just fresh out from England myself so, apart from the normal conversational insults traded between Scots and Sassenachs, we had lots in common. When I eventually moved on from Nanaimo it would be the start of close to a decade of travel through Port Alberni, Penticton, Edmonton and finally Victoria where Bob was Minister of Transport and Communications and responsible for the Insurance Corporation of BC (ICBC). He was basically packing up and getting ready for his two-year stint as agent-general in London.

I never did get to ask him whose office it was at the Palace on Skinner Street – his or Frank Crane’s – or to thank him for those early insights on how people can be unfalteringly opposed to another’s point of view but always with respect.

David Mitchell’s book W.A.C. Bennett and the Rise of British Columbia gives a thumbnail description of the times I’m remembering: “Relatively speaking, these were genteel days when the power of politics in British Columbia could be exercised in an atmosphere free from the poisonous clouds of excessive partisanship and polarization. During legislative sessions, for instance, Bennett and Strachan, or as they addressed one another, ‘Mr. Premier’ and ‘Mr. Leader of the Opposition’ would have a weekly cup of tea together.”

Maybe reading that again is what brought “Strach” back from wherever he’s been hiding in my grey matter, just to remind me to remind you to remind your local politicians – if they need reminding – that debate can be biting but doesn’t have to be bitter.

And if you are wondering what a trade union man and leader of a socialist political party was doing with an office or at least a meeting place in a Palace Hotel, wonder no more. Nanaimo’s “Palace” was built in 1889 during the economic surge following completion of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway and expansion of No.1 coal mine.

It was one of several similar establishments offering a pub and place to eat and socialize on the ground floor with sleeping accommodation on a second floor. Described as “handsome and ornate” in the 1800’s it still functions today as “The Palace Hotel” on a bend in the narrow lane called Skinner Street.

Its homepage describes it as a “club”, its exterior ablaze with neon lights advertising coming events and an ideal place to party. There is no sign of the upstairs window – always open on summer afternoons – at which I was privileged to sit and listen and learn.

“Comments” on the Palace website would indicate that its original offer of quiet “seclusion” no longer applies.

“Uneasy Lies The Head That Wears a Crown”

There’s a new book on the block and it’s worth buying (for under $20!) if you have any interest at all in the way provincial political decisions lead to new benefits or disasters – modest or major – for the people who give governments the money they need to play with.

The authors, BC provincial legislature press gallery reporters Rob Shaw, The Vancouver Sun, and Richard Zussman, Global News, admit “A Matter of Confidence – the inside story of the political battle for BC” captures only “a moment of time” in BC’s political history. While they deal comprehensively with events from 2009 – 2017, they say: “A Matter of Confidence is meant to offer a glimpse into the decisions these governments made, or didn’t make, and the actions of those around the (three) premiers during this time. It is too soon to pass judgment on their contributions to the province or how history will remember them.”

They tell their story well in language that carries the reader from event to event with easy flow; it is a rare political treatise in that it captures individual thinking and action in lively fashion and leaves the reader wanting to read one more chapter before turning the bedside light out.

Once in a while in the excitement of being in a front row seat while dramatic events unfold, develop, explode or fizzle like a damp squib, they hint the happenings are unprecedented, the most exciting times ever in BC history. That isn’t true. For real excitement in the west world, readers – and writers – can do a fact check of Premier Joseph Martin – known as “Fighting Joe – who lasted less than four months in office and departed in genuinely unprecedented style; or take a quick read of half a dozen other Premiers with shady business dealings, one or two with sad morality rules  and a few dismantled by party dissidents.

I’m not suggesting Shaw and Zussman should have cluttered their finely tuned page turner with dip-ins to past or worse events; just that they should have left out the few lines where they hint they were watching history being made whereas, with a few minor cast adjustments, they were watching it repeat itself.

One major criticism – this from the time the authors deal briefly with Premier John Horgan’s duties when he worked for Premier Mike Harcourt in the 1990s and was “tasked with keeping a close eye on ambitious cabinet minister Glen Clark. In those days, the NDP’s greatest enemy was itself. Harcourt would be forced out and Glen Clark would later become premier. Clark would keep Horgan around on his staff….”

Two questions: I wonder what “keeping a close eye” on Glen Clark meant; and is there any solid evidence that the NDP’s “greatest enemy in those days” no longer exists?

Getting rid of leaders has been standard political party procedure since before Caesar got the Shakespearean warning “beware the Ides of March” and a short time later told his followers to keep an eye on one “Cassius who has a lean and hungry look; he thinks too much: such men are dangerous.” In every country in the world and in every political party where leaders become prime minister or premier elected, there has been at least one potential Cassius. It’s the “enemy” political leaders face when the ambitions of party members replace party loyalties..

On the final pages of their book, the authors quote new Liberal Party leader Andrew Wilkinson responding to a question on the prospect of facing Horgan in the Legislature: His response: “My task is to make sure we hold the NDP to account with smart incisive questions that will make their skin crawl.”

I have a distinct feeling that Premier Horgan will not lie awake at night worrying about the possibility of Wilkinson “skin crawlers.” But, he should be thinking from time to time about a lean and hungry Cassius. There’s one or more out there with ambition that can dangerously displace loyalty. Mike Harcourt could tell him how to recognize them if he doesn’t already know. So, could Glen Clark and Ujjal Dosanjh and his minister of Finance Carole James who also felt past whisperings of the Cassius chill.

It could be dead, cured by last year’s election victory as “A Matter of Confidence suggests, but is more likely just dormant. Waiting for the next “uneasy head that wears a crown.”





Rules Of Engagement or Assassination

Stumbling around in the Internet cellar a few days ago, I tripped over a seemingly endless list of sites offering drones for sale. I was not unaware the recreational flying missiles had become popular. Nor was I unmindful of the fact that the stupid among us have already created some serious concerns flying them near airports or busy highways. But, I wasn’t prepared for dozens of ads offering “APEX Warhawk drone with HD Camera for less than $150 – and free shipping” or “drones for kids” at $32 and with half a dozen different sizes and styles to choose from.

It set me wondering how long it might be before the ungodly chorus that chants “guns don’t kill people” after each mass murder by firearms expands its embrace to include a weapon that can kill from a distance. “Drones don’t kill people” doesn’t have a familiar ring yet, but the way things are going it won’t be long.

Already on the debating table is the phrase “targeted killing” coined by USA forces battling ISIS in the Middle East. One side argues the drone is a fair weapon of war because it is actually “piloted” by a human being working a computer joy stick, hundreds of kilometers away. Non-military minds argue that killing by an explosives-loaded drone directed to destroy a specific individual or small group suspected of terrorism is an “assassination” and should be classified as murder.

The debate continues as drones become more readily available in size, payload capacity and cost and with many available as do-it-yourself kits ready for assembly. The “civilian” models now being offered with fast free delivery, and the pun probably intended, are specifically designed to carry cameras.

A few years ago, even the most modest mechanics found it easy to use camera mounts as mini-bomb holders. They became popular with terrorist organizations with the larger models quickly nicknamed “kamikaze” because they looked like a fixed-wing aircraft and carried an explosive warhead. They were relatively cheap to buy or build, though not known for accuracy; but like the first home computers purchased only by science class geeks, the early generation of drones moved quickly from being an interesting new toy to essential streamlined battlefield equipment.

In the forefront of invention were Israel and the USA. Both now have drones easily carried, launched and controlled by infantry and can be fired kilometers from their targets. The US model is called Switchblade, the Israeli – Hero-30. They boast advanced warheads and a communications system that cannot be jammed. It should be noted that the USA Central Intelligence Agency has long boasted about the accuracy of its computer-guided and controlled drone and smart bomb strikes, but has never been too convincing when explaining its “misses” or “collateral damage,” which is politely defined as “damage to other than the intended target.”

Media and humanitarian organizations tend to go high end when totaling the dead. The CIA tends to classify any casualties not in uniform as “tribesmen,” thus inferring they were really militants. Other observers list them as “civilians” – collateral damage. The CIA and military officials say “regrettable but acceptable.” Humanitarians say “regrettable and unacceptable” because the drone pilot cannot be absolutely sure who is in the target areas and, and if he or she kills only one innocent is guilty of assassination.

The latest drone unveiled a matter of days ago and probably already “improved on” is equipped with something called Vanomap. It enables the drone to navigate through a forest at 32klm an hour from launch point to target. It claims 99 percent accuracy in weaving around trees and finding its target but the “pilot” pulling the trigger has no way of knowing if the people milling about on his video monitor are terrorists or a family celebrating a wedding.

In the blink of an eye death comes calling in a  modern acceptable military victory – or the assassination of innocents which has gained in acceptance in every war fought since “total war” and collaterally damaged civilians became the norm.



We Should Have Supported The Science

Sometimes I’m a little slow to react – and sometimes so slow that I find myself commenting on history instead of what should (would) have been current affairs had I been quicker off the mark. It is a fact that since I hunkered down in the Berwick Royal Oak Residence for senior citizens 16 months ago (yes, tempus does fugit) I have quadrupled my rate of procrastination.

Thus, today, I bring you my thoughts on an event that took place a year ago in and on the waters of Puget Sound; an event which would be hilariously entertaining had it not involved a spill of millions of gallons of sewage and stormwater and cost multi-millions of dollars to fix.

Readers of my blog, who reside beyond the provincial boundaries of British Columbia, may have picked up whispers from time to time that BC’s capital city, Victoria, admired for its scenic and floral beauty, disposes of its raw sewage and stormwater into the ocean which rolls between BC and Washington State.

For years, local governments and regional district authorities resisted the cries of environmentalists demanding that the disposal of raw sewage into the ocean end, and a full sewage waste-water treatment plant be built at a cost of millions of dollars. For years local government countered those protests with environmental and scientific studies and reports that the waste being piped into fast flowing deep water currents was being transformed, diluted and returned to nature with pristine efficiency.

The scientific evidence did not impress Victoria protesters. Their voices echoed across the ocean and found common cause in Seattle where USA local governments began to belittle Greater Victoria’s scientific evidence and apply economic pressure to force the building of a full treatment plant. Victoria’s economy depends heavily on tourism and negative media plus political attacks on the dumping of raw sewage into the ocean began to take their toll.

In Canada, provincial and federal governments ignored or rejected scientific studies that claimed ocean tides and currents were taking more than adequate care of any perceived problems. Local environmentalists created a symbolic mascot to wander the streets and attend public gatherings. It was an adult male made up to look like human faeces, aptly named Mr. Floatie.

There is little doubt Mr. Floatie’s vulgar presence was more appealing to an easily led public than the carefully reasoned science stating nature was already controlling the situation; that full treatment was not necessary. The threat that senior governments might withdraw heavy funding required to build the plant weighed heavily in the final equation. In September 2016, a decision was made to proceed with the project at a cost now estimated at more than a billion dollars.

In May 2017, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps accompanied Mr. Floatie to Seattle to triumphantly attend his “retirement party” after two years working for Mayor Helps, Tourism Victoria (and) their Seattle counterparts. The party was hosted by Canadian Consul General James Hill. The flight to Seattle would take the Mayor and Mr. Floatie over the site where four months earlier hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage and stormwater had spewed untreated from Seattle’s West Point sewage and stormwater treatment plant.

There is no indication in the reports on Mayor Helps’ and Mr. Floatie’s flight that the site of the disastrous sewage spill was ever pointed out to them or that they ever got to meet Kim Stark, the lead quality water controller at the King County Environmental Lab. Ms. Stark had assured a concerned public that in the days immediately after the spill caused by a mechanical failure, “some monitoring categories spiked,” but that just a short time later, “everything looks typical.”

Then she significantly added: “There was a reason West Point outfall was put in the location it was. It is a perfect location [because] there are some very high bottom currents. So, the effluent goes out and kind of moves and just becomes very diluted very quickly.”  Which is why in very short order after the West Point outfall disaster occurred “everything was back to normal” – which is exactly what the scientists and environmental engineers had been saying was happening with Greater Victoria’s sewage disposal since the great debate began.

But the people ignored the science and the logic and followed instead the advice of a piece of … well, maybe best not to go there.


Remembering The First Man He Killed

I was cynically amused a few days ago when USA President Donald Trump puffed his bottom lip and pronounced that had he been on duty the day 17 school children and school workers were murdered he would have burst into the school and without hesitation executed the shooter.

I have no doubt the President believed the thought. And, I have no doubt that he has never been in a position where he was required to face the fact that if he opened the door in front of him it could be the last thing he ever did on earth. Others were also critical of police who failed to react as they had been trained that fateful morning. Cowardice was not an unspoken word.

My reaction was a little kinder, although I have never been in a situation where a well-armed man was waiting just beyond a door ready to kill me if I opened it. I have no idea what my reaction would have been or would ever be but many years ago, William Manchester, a writer of great integrity, told me how I might have felt and reacted.

He was writing one of his several classics – Goodbye Darkness, a memoir of the Pacific War. In the opening pages we find him flying across the Pacific to revisit old battle grounds. As he flies through the night, old memories, “phantoms repressed for more than a third of a century come back; (one) with a clarity so blinding that I surge forward against the seat belt, appalled by it, filled with remorse and shame. I am remembering the first man I slew.”

Manchester, in charge of a 19-member squad of marines, takes us to a beach on Motobo where a fisherman’s shack from which sniper fire had already claimed several victims, was barring progress. He was the leader. “Sweating with the greatest fear I had known until then, I took a deep breath,” asked for squad coverage and made a dash for the hut dropping every dozen steps, remembering to roll as I dropped.” He was almost at the door when he realized he wasn’t wearing his steel helmet and “that was a violation of orders. I was out of uniform and I remember hoping, idiotically, that nobody would report me.”

He remembered, too, how his jaw began to twitch and “various valves were opening and closing in my stomach. My mouth was dry, my legs quaking, and my eyes out of focus.” He struggled for control, kicked the flimsy door open, crashed inside where “my horror returned. I was in an empty room!” There was another door, another room which meant that’s where the sniper was – now alerted by the noise.Waiting.

“But,” wrote Manchester, “I had committed myself. Flight was impossible now. I smashed into the other room and saw him as a blur to my right. I wheeled, crouched, gripped the pistol butt with both hands and fired.”

He was the first Japanese soldier Manchester had ever shot, the first he had ever seen at close quarters.

“He was a robin-fat, moon-faced, roly-poly little man … squeezed into a uniform that was much too tight.” Manchester’s first shot had missed “the second caught him dead-on in the femoral artery.” As the sniper slumped down and bled out in a pool of his own blood, Manchester kept firing until his magazine was empty.

He reloaded his gun, and “then I began to tremble, and next to shake all over. I sobbed, in a voice still grainy with fear – ‘I’m sorry.’ Then I threw up all over myself. I recognized half-digested C-ration beans dribbling down my front, smelled the vomit above the cordite. At the same time, I noticed another odour; I had urinated in my skivvies.”

Another member of his squad arrived, checked to make sure the sniper was dead. “I marveled at his courage,” Manchester wrote.”I could not have taken a step toward that corner”. The squad member then approached Manchester but quickly “backed away in revulsion from my foul stench saying: ‘Slim, you stink.’ I said nothing. I knew I had become a thing of tears and twitchings and dirtied pants. I remember wondering dimly: ‘Is this what they mean by ‘conspicuous gallantry?’”

And as I read Manchester again, I wondered if President Trump could read him and identify and confess without shame a true warrior’s tarnished distress;and I wondered how many of the people quick to brand as cowards men who couldn’t cope with fear, would have handled the situation in the beach hut on Motobu.

I ask myself the same question and hope I never have to find out.