Month: September 2018

Don’t Bury The Past — Learn From It

It broods over Dublin on even the finest of Irish mornings. A silent, glowering, monolithic monument to evil times and wicked men; to injustice and executions so vile they turned the conscience of an Empire and the world.

When it was built in 1796, it was called “the New Gaol,” designed to replace what was described as “a noisesome dungeon.” It would eventually be named Kilmainham Gaol and serve with a disgraceful record in England’s attempt to bring Ireland under submissive control.

Almost from opening day, the Irish called Kilmainham “The Irish Bastille,” with public hangings just outside its front doors and ghastly conditions inside. Encyclopedias tell us there was no segregation of prisoners in the early years of Kilmainham. Men, women, and children could be housed in same cells – 28 meters square. There was no running water and after dark, illumination and heat came from a wax candle. Each prisoner was issued one candle every two weeks.

As the years went by, there was little improvement in conditions. Public hanging was getting an unseemly reputation and was moved “inside” to a specially built hanging cell. Prisoners still existed under abominable conditions with women suffering far more than men.

In1809, the Inspector of Prisons reported male prisoners were provided iron bedsteads and a slim mattress while female prisoners slept on straw “on the flagstone of the cells and common halls.”

Kilmainham reached a zenith of evil in 1916, the year of the great Easter Rising when a volunteer Irish army challenged the military might of Great Britain and was badly mauled in the process. In May, the now old jail became the execution headquarters for the rebel leaders.

On May 3, 1916, Thomas James Clarke, the first signer of the Proclamation of Independence, led the parade of the doomed to Kilmainham’s inner courtyard of execution. Nine days later, on May 12, James Connolly was the last to face the jail firing squad – in a way that brought world condemnation on Major-General Sir John Maxwell, commander-in-chief of operations in Ireland, and his country.

Connolly had been badly wounded in the few days of fighting. And his leg wounds had turned gangrenous. He was unable to walk or stand when he was transported to Kilmainham, where he was tied to a chair, allowed a few minutes with a priest, and executed. Between May3-12 more than a dozen executions after brief and cursory military hearings were carried out at Kilmainham.

A few years later, Kilmainham was closed and, by 1936, plans were considered for its demolition. However, there was a stirring among the people that it would be wrong to demolish – to obliterate – such a powerful monument to the growth of a nation. By the 1950s, rumours that the Office of Public Works was about to seek tenders for the demolition sparked action, and in 1958 the grassroots preservation people formed the “Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society.”

Wikipedia informs us that in May 1960, 48 years after Connolly’s execution “with a workforce of 60 volunteers, the society set about clearing the overgrown vegetation, trees, fallen masonry and bird droppings from the site. By 1962, the symbolically important prison execution yard … had been cleared of rubble …” But not of memories.

Today, Kilmainham Gaol jokes about being the largest unoccupied jail in Europe – maybe the world. Empty of prisoners, but now a national museum jammed with history, it tells the world the story of a nation’s journey through tragedies to today’s point in time.

And, it tells us that story, warts and all, the good guys and the bad, the unimaginable cruelties and the equally unimaginable beauty of the courage of people who believed things could be better and made them so.

Maybe Canadians – native and immigrant – should think of Kilmainham the next time we get the urge to hide a statue or eliminate a building with harsh memories.

An Old Soldier’s Rejected Plea For Peace

It is an often-repeated theme of mine that while mankind gets smarter with each passing year, we don’t seem to learn much. We make remarkable progress in the battle against disease while developing weapons to more efficiently kill enemies real or perceived.

It was 65 years ago – in April 1953 – that then USA President Dwight D. Eisenhower touched on the dilemma in his first major speech since assuming the Presidency three months earlier – and shook the conscience of the world. But, without lasting effect.

In his speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, President Eisenhower urged the men and women who controlled the printing presses of North America to understand their power and use it wisely. “You are,” he said, “in such a vital way, both representatives of and responsible to the people of our country. In great part, upon you – upon your intelligence, your integrity, your devotion to the ideals of freedom and justice themselves – depends the understanding and the knowledge with which our people must meet the facts of the twentieth century.”

He suggested editors should focus their energies, as he intended to focus his, on the one great issue “which most urgently challenges and summons the wisdom and courage of our whole people. This issue is peace.”

It was a courageous speech given just eight short years after cataclysmic nuclear blasts had demolished Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II and touch off the great arms race between Russia and the USA. He admitted that the chilling rhetoric of the times had seen his dream of peace “grow dim and almost die.” He warned that unless the world could, with newspapers cultivating understanding and knowledge, find the way to peace, the worst outcome would be an atomic war. And, then “the best would be this; a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and the labour of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system or the Soviet system or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the peoples of this earth.”

We can be thankful we missed the worst option – even as we confirm the accuracy of Eisenhower’s vision of “perpetual fear and tension” in today’s world which still lacks the will to find peace. And, sadly, also now lacks a powerful Press voice urging a great nation to continue the search.

The editors of 1953 listened respectfully to the President but didn’t do much to change their ways. The world heard his words, even praised them, but preferred to be entertained by media rather than informed. A few old-timers may remember what Eisenhower said 65 years ago, and a few more might like to hear them spoken again by more presidents and prime ministers.

Eisenhower 1953: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

“The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities; it is two electric power plants, each serving a town with a 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals … We pay for a single fighter plane with half a million bushels of wheat … We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed 8,000 people.”

Not much has changed since the son of pacifist Mennonite parents broke traditional family beliefs, joined the army, became a general and overall military commander of the Allied forces in WW2, and then President of the USA.

Having seen war at its bloodiest, and maybe with memories of childhood in a home governed by peace and love and the security both can bring, he said the world of 1953 was not a pleasant place as it raced for bigger and better arms.

“This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. These plain and cruel truths define the peril and point the hope that comes with this spring of 1953 …”

Eight years later, on January 17, 1961, in his farewell speech from the White House, he warned that while it was vital for the USA to maintain a military establishment “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

I wonder what the old soldier would say today. Would he still have “faith that God created man to enjoy, not destroy?” And, would he still hold firm his belief that one day the world would see lifted “from the backs of men and from the hearts of men, their burden of arms and of fears, so that they may find before them a golden age of freedom and peace?”

Maybe, but he would surely weep at the bellicose threats issuing from the man who now holds his old job and the scavenged press so much-diminished as a responsible force for good.



An End or a Beginning?

After careful consideration, I am prepared to forecast that the pending open marketing sale of what we politely call non-medical cannabis will not be anywhere near as confusing as the last time our provincial government bulldozed its way into the lucrative “forget your worries” drug distribution business. 

That was a couple of world wars back when thousands of young men came wandering home from the WW1 battlefields of Europe unable to find a friendly estaminet or pub for a relaxing glass of wine or a pint of beer. Our soldiers, sailors, and air force personnel were not pleased when they discovered that the mixed-up liquor laws in effect when they shipped out had been consolidated nationally in 1918 to a total prohibition of the sale of alcoholic drinks. 

Total prohibition didn’t last long. Officially it lasted until 1921. In reality bootlegging kept the liquor trade alive – and profitable enough to make the government envious. 

During the early half-hearted prohibition period, medical doctors boosted their incomes by charging $2 to sign a prescription for “medicinal liquor” which could then be legally purchased at a government outlet or a drug store. A Brief History of BC Wine and Liquor Laws ( informs us that in 1919 alone “181,000 prescriptions were written by the provinces’ doctors at $2 each. The government eased its conscience by stressing the medical values of booze as recommended by doctors and joyfully banked $1.5 million in liquor sale in that same year. 

That was peanuts compared with when the United States introduced national prohibition (1920-1933) and the east coast of Vancouver Island from Nanaimo to Victoria held pride of place among “rum runners” anxious to quench the great American thirst. 

Duty bound to respect American law, the provincial government declared rum runners criminals and made a few arrests. But high on its “things to do list” were new laws designed to make sure a goodly portion of all liquor sales ended up in the provincial treasury. Big Brother was discovering people would willingly pay to soften their sorrows. 

On Oct. 20, 1920, a plebiscite vote was held “to ascertain whether the electorate was still in favour of BC’s 1917 Prohibition Act or wanted a milder form of government liquor control.” The questions: “1) Do you favour the Prohibition Act; or 2) An Act to provide for Government Control and Sale in Sealed Packages of Spirituous and Malt Liquors.” 

The answer was clear with 55,488 voting to retain prohibition and 92,095 voting to get liquor sales out in the open under government control. A few weeks later a general election was called with revised liquor laws the main issue. The Liberal government lost half a dozen seats but still held power and the electorates support to control the sale “of spirituous and malt liquors.” Prohibition was over in BCand the government was in control of sales.

By 1921, back street government liquor stores – with no products on display – were opening, but customers had to go through several procedural steps before they could obtain the bottle of their choice. Pubs and cocktail bars were still officially unknown but “beer clubs” flourished. 

In 1924 there was a fight was over the sale of beer by the glass “in licensed premises without a bar.” It failed with 73,853 no votes and 72,214 yes. 

Although the “no” vote prevailed overall, many communities had voted in favour of beer by the glass in licensed pubs and were allowed to open. They were not pleasant places. No food was allowed and patrons were forbidden to stand while drinking. In 1927, women were allowed into the once all-male sanctum – but only if they entered by a separate entrance to men and if they drank in a separate room. 

In 1952, the government reintroduced the beer by the glass issue with the plebiscite slightly reworded to ask: “Are you in favour of the sale of spirituous liquor and wine by the glass in establishments licensed for such purpose?” 

Yes votes totaled 315,533; no votes were 205,736; and an astounding 20, 856 spoiled their ballots – whether by tantrum or spilled drinks is not recorded. The vote led to the establishment of the Liquor Inquiry Commission which in turn led to the Liquor Distribution Branch and explosion of pubs, bars, and nightclubs around the province. In the early going, patrons drank behind frosted or curtained windows – presumably to avoid being seen imbibing or to shield the eyes of passersby from temptation. Women were allowed to enter bars if accompanied by a man and eventually were granted to come and go as they pleased.

It wasn’t until the early 1970s, when Dave Barrett was premier and neighborhood pubs were making their debut, that most of the old taboos disappeared. And, while the world did not come to end, it’s hard to make a case that the more we drank the more we made the world a better place. 

So, we wait for October 17, the day the federal government legalizes marijuana. Significantly in BC, the Liquor Distribution Branch is in charge of the launch as it seeks the largest slice of the free-enterprise gold mine via wholesale and retail stores and a full-blown BC Cannabis Stores Internet presence with two separate websites “to fulfill online orders; one for consumers and another for private retailer stores.” 

Remembering the past history of the government’s progress from bystander to chief distributor of pleasurable and dangerous drugs based on alcohol, I wonder: will non-medical marijuana remain alone as a government sponsored aid to dreamworld? Or what might next be added to the list?


20/20 Vision Will Be Required

School teachers in British Columbia lost the right to vote in provincial elections or even participate in election campaigning in 1878, just seven years after BC elected its first provincial government in 1871. They joined native-born first citizens and Chinese immigrants on the list of residents disenfranchised, banned from the ballot.

The latter half of the 1800s was an unsettled time for a brand-new provincial government, not quite sure of its responsibilities and nervous about possible challenges to its authority.

A historical timeline published by today’s BC Teachers’ Federation is designed to guide its members and the general public through the steps leading to today’s full collective agreement bargaining rights. It starts: “In 1872, the initial Public Schools Act for BC contained few rights for teachers (who) were organized into a Teacher Institute dominated by government officials.”

Item two in the timeline jumps to 1917 when the BCTF was officially formed to deal “with economic, professional and social concerns …”

There is no mention in the timeline of the earlier draconian suspension of the right of teachers to vote or participate in an election campaign and I could not find a written record as I combed through hard-to-read ancient Daily Colonists and volumes of major and minor Statutes of BC. I found a statute number announcing the prohibition – SBC 1878 c.22 – but with no meat on the bone. (A data contribution from any amateur or professional historian with better eyes and/or a quicker mind would be gratefully appreciated.)

For now, let me just say that as the new provincial government began to flex its muscles in the 1800s, banning people from voting became a favourite form of discipline. The prohibition against teachers voting was withdrawn in 1883 which indicates teachers were banned from participating in two general elections – the year of the ban, May 1878 and the vote in July 1882.

Teachers were not the only target group to be denied the vote by a nervous government trying to curb costs by holding down wages and refusing to even consider social benefits for their workers. Obviously, come election time, the government of the day couldn’t be punished by those denied the vote. Other groups excluded over the years included civil servants, judges, police officers, political agents, the military and “the inmates of insane asylums.”

Among the last to be removed from the list of the disenfranchised were “the clergy.” Why they were ever on the list is a mystery, but men of God (no women in the pulpit at the time) were not allowed to vote until 1916 – one year before women finally got the franchise in 1917.

A year later on January 12, 1918, Mary Ellen Smith won a byelection in Vancouver. And, two years after that, two clergymen transferred from the pulpit to political soap-box and the legislative debating chamber. Reverend Thomas Menzies was elected in Comox and Canon Joshua Hinchcliffe in Victoria as they made the jump from preaching to politics in 1920.

We have come a long way from those bad old days when the government thought its power unchallengeable and the populace accepted ridiculous decisions without question. Governments did become wiser with the passing of the years but only because their people made them.

A hundred and forty years ago, in 1878, a total of 6,377 voters elected 25 members to a new legislative assembly with government playing tough guy with a handful of poorly organized school teachers. In 1916, some 179,774 voters elected 47 MLAs and a year later in 1917 the fledgling BC Teachers’ Federation was born.

Today, the BCTF is a formidable organization ready enough, rich enough, strong enough, smart enough to fight and protect its members. Sometimes it gets too smart for its own good, forgets its role in the grand scheme of things and the fact that the many benefits of the teaching profession are paid for by people who can only dream of such good fortune.

Over the next few months – maybe for as long as a year (the current agreement expires June 30,2019) – the BCTF will be engaged in debate with the government to hammer out a new collective agreement. On October 26 and 27, the BCTF will be holding a members bargaining conference to discuss its “vital” objectives when formal negotiations begin late this year or early next.

We, who will pick up the tab for whatever the teachers win at the table, can only wait and watch and hope that BCTF demands are reasonable and that the government’s response is justifiable and affordable, and that the outcomes are the product of honest explanations of costs for the benefit of those of us who pay the bill.

Our representative at the table is the government – and we of voting age have full rights to run, vote and/ or campaign in the general election scheduled a blink in time after the new BCTF collective agreement is signed.

20/20 could be an interesting time with clear sight on political issues more important than ever before.


Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

It was Mark Twain who coined the critical phrase “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” At least, most historians credit him as the originator although Twain, with unusual modesty, always insisted he had borrowed the quote from British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.

As a man of words rather than numbers, I fear statistics, especially when they run into multi-millions of dollars and are more than four digits long. Thus, on August 27th, I trembled when I received from “Government Communications and Public Engagement, Ministry of Education” two pages of stats designed to provide a “snapshot of British Columbia’s education system.”

It’s a perk or punishment I get as an “Honorary Life Member of the Legislature Press Gallery.” I remain on the mailing list for the full flood of ever-flowing press releases. I read them all. Having paid for part of their production with tax dollars I can ill afford to pay, I feel I should at least skim them before clicking delete and sending them on their scurried way to oblivion.

So, I viewed the snapshot cursorily, quite prepared to be bored, but quickly came to realize I was not just reading a page of statistics. I was also picking up some signals that all was not well in our total society. Reading the stats was a bit like carrying canaries down a coal mine to test for life-threatening gas

Maybe I’m just an old guy getting a little paranoid, but after a few early, comforting, even proud numbers, there seemed to be two or three serious “canary” warnings. But first a polite opening:

There are 1,566 public schools and 360 independent schools in BC. It is estimated pending final enrolment count this month that there will be 538,821 funded public school students in the 2018-19 school years. This would be an increase of 1,737 students since 2017.

Then comes the first “canary” flutter.

“Based on student head-count in the 2017-18 year there were 69,685 students with special needs in the province – 3,020 more than the year before.” Close to 70,000 children with disabilities no child should have to carry? And getting worse each year.

The textbook description of special needs reads: Special Education is a broad term used to describe specially designed learning opportunities to meet the unique needs of exceptional learners. Special Education services enable students to have equitable access to learning opportunities to ensure they achieve the goals of their Individualized Education Plans. Education Plans can include academic, social, emotional and behavioural learning. According to the BC Ministry of Education: “Students with special needs have disabilities of an intellectual, physical, sensory, emotional, or behavioural nature, or have a learning disability …”

It should be noted that students with “exceptional gifts or talents” are also included and offered extended learning opportunities. I suspect they are vastly outnumbered by children with “disabilities of intellectual, physical, sensory, emotional, or behavioural nature or have a learning disability.”

My second “canary” died a few lines later in the “snapshot” report: “There are 70,487 indigenous students in the province – 1,299 fewer than the year before.” A drop in student enrollment is worrisome, especially when tied to the statistic reporting that only 66 percent of the indigenous students finish high school.

I rejoiced briefly when I read that 84 percent of public school students complete high school and 87 percent of English language learners do the same. Then my third canary hit the bottom of the cage.

There are 54,063 French immersion students in public schools in the province – an increase of 295 students. Reportedly, 96 percent completed high school. But hold the cheers for a second or two.

There are 5,940 Francophone students in the province – 249 more than the year before. They operate under the Conseil Scolaire Francophone school board and boast a high of 99 percent high school completion plus equal or better provincial exam marks in English than other high schools.

For readers beyond the boundaries of BC, French immersion students attend regular English-speaking schools with French a second language. Francophone schools are French speaking with English taught as a second language

So, what am I concerned about?

  1. Is the number of “special needs” children rising each year? Is there a cause? Were special needs children “hidden” when I was a child or when my now adult children were going through the system? I remember an occasional “problem” child but not many.
  1. Regarding indigenous students, I thought we were, and still think we are, making progress. First Nation leaders must recognize that, even though we interlopers made some dumb mistakes when we first moved in, we did correct our bad judgment errors and now maintain a reasonably good education system. But something must still be amiss if native elders can’t persuade their young people to not only complete grade 12 but move even higher on the education ladder.
  1. How come the Francophone schools have such a high rate of success? Is it pride in work ethic? Tougher disciplines? Better teachers even though they seem hard to find?

Two days after receiving my ‘education by numbers’ e-mail from the government word factory I spotted a single column headline in my local newspaper reading Government Lauds Extra Funding For Schools. The first paragraph confirmed what my e-mail had informed me.”BC’s schools have had a $580-million funding boost to hire up to 3,700 new teachers and a number of educational assistants.” The announcer of the good news – Education Minister Rob Fleming.

Instead of running up the flag and shouting “hallelujah” Glen Hansman, president of the BC Teacher’s Federation reminded the minister his funding announcement was not only old but was a decision reluctantly made by the Liberal administration the NDP replaced little more than a year ago.

“It is something the (Supreme Court of Canada) ordered because of teacher’s persistence through the court,” said Hansman, not something Fleming or the NDP have done. “Beyond what the court ordered there has not been any new additional funding on the operational side from the province.”

The brief exchange reported by Canadian Press can be chalked up as the probing rounds of the pending full-scale education funding battle between the BCTF and the government. It could continue for weeks or months with one observation guaranteed; Mark Twain’s “Lies, damn lies, and statistics” will be mentioned from time to time.

Keep an ear on the dialogue when it shifts to higher gear. And eye on the “canaries.”