Month: March 2019

“Never again” Over a Cup of Tea

“It was a military necessity,” Ottawa said when it coldly, calmly, arbitrarily, confiscated the right of Japanese Canadians to own property after Japan attacked the USA Pacific fleet based at Pearl Harbour.

That December 7, 1941 attack touched off a panic reaction in the western states and all too soon slopped over the 49th parallel where a large commercial fishing fleet operated between Victoria in the south, Prince Rupert in the north and a multitude of smaller ports between.

Not all the fishing boats were owned and operated by Japanese Canadians, but many were – and for every one of them was a whispered conjecture that when at sea they would make wonderful spy ships for a Japanese navy.

In fear, the USA was organizing the controlled eviction of citizens of Japanese ancestry from all coastal areas. Their new government controlled “camps” were not called prisons; just “controlled.”

In Canada, Japanese families were treated much the same. Individual fishing boat owners were stripped of ownership and their vessels sold at giveaway prices while they and their families were shipped to “camps” in the Interior.

It was not just fishermen who suffered from the heavy hand of a panicked government.

One Japanese Canadian who had his life’s work and achievements seized was Mr. Eikichi Kagetsu. He was active in the forest industry, owned a railway and marine industry developments including an oyster farm. He lost it all; dispossessed by decree based on unfounded assumptions.

The detailed story of Mr. Kagetsu is now part of what is described as “the massive archive and oral histories” being collected by the University of Victoria Landscape of Injustice research program in co-operation with the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby.

They have set 2021 as the year they hope to have a touring exhibit ready to show the world.

It will undoubtedly contain a section on Esquimalt’s once famous Japanese Teahouse – Canada’s first Japanese garden and teahouse located in what is now Esquimalt Gorge Park. It was opened in 1907 by brothers Hayato and Kensuke Takata and operated successfully until 1942 when they were both interned.

Writing recently for UVic News (http.//www.uvic.ca/news/topics/2018+Japanese-teahouse-gorge+news) Stephanie Harrington describes the old teahouse at its best and at its vandal destroyed demise. “It took 35 years to nurture the tea gardens, which opened in 1907, and mere months to destroy what the brothers had built.”

Which brings me in my own convoluted way to an announcement by Esquimalt municipal council Council that it is considering building a new Japanese Tea Garden on the old site. A good idea and a fitting reminder of what can happen in the finest of nations when racism runs riot in defiance of logic and basic decency. Leaning on expertise available at UVic or the Mikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre and true to tradition the Japanese Tea Garden “with hundreds of Japanese lanterns hung throughout grounds dotted with bonsai and cherry trees” could be reborn.

A place for calm conversations during which we can acknowledge past failures of our government and we, the people of the day who raised no objections at the time but now pledge “never again” over a good cup of tea.

Flowers Are Not The Answer

Flowers are not the answer. Not in small bunches stuck in fences or piled high in ever-growing mini-mountains of dying stalks and once bright blossoms.

Thousands of flowers marking the sites of 21st Century massacres and all placed reverently but untidily with messages of love and respect by people for people they never met, never knew.

Most of the floral tributes carry messages of goodwill for the victims of the latest barbaric execution. At the time of this writing, the most recent slaughter occurred a week ago in Christchurch, New Zealand, but given the current state of insanity in the world – heaven forbid – it could have been equalled or surpassed by now.

New Zealand, population around four million, is roughly the same size as the Canadian province of British Columbia. It is a peaceful country boasting no poisonous snakes or other dangerous wildlife and possessing a natural beauty that matches or surpasses any other country in the world. It is not hard to find travellers who endorse those claims – and the more important one that New Zealanders, whether native Maori or more recent immigrant stock, have created a most hospitable nation.

The national response to the tragedy that saw 50 New Zealanders executed while at prayer was a lesson to other nations, great and small, on how to handle a major crisis without creating panic in the general population.

The first-responder reaction was swift, culminating in the arrest of the Australian gunman. The arrest is significant because for us in Canada, who see all too often similar mass shootings in the USA, rarely is the assassin taken alive.

It was a time of high emotion, a time when the smallest of verbal sparks could create an explosive crowd reaction.

Within hours of the mass killing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, 38, called a press conference to address the nation. It was a classic act of leadership and quite Churchillian in tone. Blunt from the outset, she quickly mastered the quaver in her voice to earn a headline in The Guardian newspaper: “Real leaders do exist: Jacinda Ardern uses solace and steel to guide a broken nation.”

The morning following the tragedy she was in Christchurch with, The Guardian tells us, “the majority of her cabinet ministers and opposition leaders, meeting with members of the Muslim community … She held them in her arms as they sobbed, whispering words of condolence and pressing her cheek against theirs.”

The following day, she was reporting to parliament with a tribute to the Muslim community. Her first words were in Arabic: “As-salaam-alaikum (Peace be upon you).” A silent house listened as she told them “one of the roles I never anticipated having and hoped never to have, is to voice the grief of a nation.”

She has never voiced the name of the shooter and says she never will. She urged others to do the same. “He sought notoriety … it was one of his goals … we will deny him that.” She hasn’t asked the media specifically to do the same, which is a pity because it controls the notoriety factor.

This brings me round-robin, back to flowers which have become a mandatory sign of caring when disasters major or minor occur in public places. I accept the fact that the people who buy the flowers and place them do so in kindness of heart – but I think they could deliver a better message.

PM Ardern listed an alternative when she named actions she was taking in the aftermath although she never mentioned floral tributes. She did tell survivors of the mass shooting that they would be supported financially if the need arose.

It was a comforting assurance, not as pretty as a bunch of roses, but far more practical and longer lasting.

On Friday, one week after the shootings shocked the nation, the PM called for a national day of prayerful remembrance. “We are broken hearted,” she told the world and her people, “but we are not broken.” The call to prayer was the traditional “adhan” made to every corner of New Zealand via national television and radio. The prime minister said she wanted survivors and the world to know “New Zealand mourns with you; we are one.”

And I am left wondering if Canada could find a similar voice, calm but defiant and reassuring in a time of a major national crisis? Or whom among our provincial leaders BC could confidently follow through and beyond adversity .

An Immigrant – But Not a Pioneer

I was chatting with a new immigrant to Canada a few days ago; one who had arrived in Victoria in 2018. She felt she was adjusting reasonably well to a new job and making new friends in a new neighbourhood in a new country.

“But it hasn’t always been an easy year,” she said. “When did you come out?”

“June 1948,” I replied.

“Wow! You were a real pioneer. How did you get here?”

It wasn’t the first time I had been “admired” for being a post-war pioneer, nor the first time I had explained that while five days on an ocean liner, then five on a giant trans-continental train got a little wearing towards the end, it was luxury travel when compared with the covered wagons and carts of the real sod-busting pioneers.

British Columbia was well-established by the time I got here, but it hadn’t always been “British” – although the Brits had been poking around the coast since 1579. According to the late Salt Spring Island author Sam Bawlf, Francis Drake – later Sir Francis – circumnavigated Vancouver Island, reached the Queen Charlottes (now Haida Gwaii), then sailed back south via the Inside Passage making landfall at Campbell River and Nanaimo and declaring all the land north of what is now San Francisco to be “New Albion.”

But Drake was more interested in pirating Spanish treasure ships loaded with silver en route to the Royal Court of Spain than establishing wilderness outposts, so he left the Northwest to the Spaniards.

By the 1700s, Spain was the principal power with small outposts dotting the coast and one large one at Nootka here on Vancouver Island under the administration of one Bodega Quadra, and, for a few years, under a Spanish army captain named Don Pedro Alberni. Both are well remembered in the naming of Quadra Island, Quadra Street, the Alberni Canal and Valley and the twin cities of Port Alberni and Alberni, now amalgamated.

It was with Quadra that British Captain George Vancouver eventually negotiated the transfer of ownership of what the Spaniards called New Spain to the British. Quadra’s and Vancouver’s island became British and thus part of Drake’s New Albion. Spain gave up all claims of land between the Pacific Northwest and what was then Spanish California.

It would be close to another 200 years, 1858, before New Albion was officially named British Columbia by Queen Victoria … six years after the first street plan for Victoria and just four years before the City of Victoria was incorporated in 1862.

My “new immigrant” asked what happened to the native tribes living here when Spain, then England, claimed the land for their royal patrons and masters.

“They’re still here,” I said. “Still trying to get at least some of their land back.”

“I didn’t know that,” she replied.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “A lot of British Columbian’s don’t know or don’t care to know. It all happened in the real pioneer days when the white people seriously believed they were a superior race.”

Victoria was growing up from a tent city to a fort to a frontier town to a sophisticated city in the early 1900s. At least, that’s how it was portrayed in the pages of the Colonist … the oldest newspaper in Canada west of Winnipeg.

As the new century took hold, men and women – real pioneers on the edge of the known world – yearned for touches of the civilized world they had left.

In Victoria, a musical society was created and brought to the frontier the most famous violinist of the era, Arthur Hartman, who played to a sold-out audience in the Victoria Theatre.

The following day, the Colonist waxed eloquently in praise of Mr. Hartman’s “playing of selections from the wailing melodies of the Russian steppes and the strangely similar folk songs of the Indians … all perfectly interpreted to a large audience whose enthusiasm increased with each number. The audience was held in breathless attention and accorded applause of a volume that has not been exceeded in the history of this city …”

With not a dry eye in the house or a native in the audience.

The Right to Know

It is the mantra of media: “The right to know.” The hymn every reporter and editor sing when probing questions are being asked; when “confidential” government reports are being pried loose, begged, borrowed or glowingly welcomed in plain brown paper envelopes.

“The right to know,” sometimes sung with religious fervour, sometimes bayed like hounds on the hunt for a politician wounded by allegations of scandal and ripe to be brought down and savaged.

Pure in the search for truth and justice, “the right to know” is battle cry, shield and protector against all who would brand editorial writers and reporters slavering jackals and enemies of “the people” and columnists like yours truly as “they who come down from the hills after the battle is over and bayonet the wounded.”

It hasn’t always been this way. Back in August 2003, I wrote a column on the findings of a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) meeting in February in Perth, Australia, to discuss Parliament and the Media, with “the right to know” a high priority. Its findings – Recommendations for an Informed Democracy – were surprisingly free of harsh criticism of the media, and courteously understanding of the role of the press in a free society.

Far more, understanding, I suggested, than we in the press were of the politicians we bayonet.

There was a clear recognition by the politicians that a public figure automatically sacrifices much of the private life the rest of us cherish. The study declared: “The public’s right to know must be balanced against the individual’s right to privacy – which must sometimes be sacrificed by public figures to the extent that their private lives impinge on their public roles. The responsible determination of the balance between the public’s legitimate right to know and public curiosity is a matter for the media initially (then) for the public itself, and if necessary, ultimately for the independent judiciary.”

Clearly, politicians recognize their loss of privacy; equally clearly, they place a heavy responsibility on the press to differentiate between “the public’s legitimate right to know” and prurient “public curiosity” which all too often dominates coverage of events involving political personalities. To both sides, the CPA study group sent the reminder that there should always be an “independent judiciary” from which to seek a ruling.

The government of British Columbia has just moved into that judicial zone with a request to a retired but “independent judiciary” to sort out accusations and denials in what might be titled the Speaker Plecas affair which led to the suspension of Clerk Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz.

The CPA study findings and recommendations were forwarded to all Commonwealth members with the aforementioned decision in BC being an indication that the CPA recommendations registered here.

The Commonwealth parliamentarians pushed beyond the “right to know” and “public curiosity” into the much harder-to-decide issues when “the public interest” clashes with “the national interest.” The SNC-Lavalin issue springs to mind as the fixed photo-op smile on PM Justin Trudeau fades to sunset frown.

The CPA solution, now 16 years old but still worth listening to: “When ‘the public interest’ is claimed by government to be in conflict with the demand for secrecy in ‘the national interest’, the determination of what constitutes ‘the national interest” and when it should take precedence over the ‘public interest’ should be assigned by law to the courts.” If adopted, that recommendation would strip governments of the all too often used safety blanket of political expediency – the blanket the PMO now appears to be reaching for.

A few other thoughts from the CPA under the heading Freedom of Expression: “The media’s right to criticize and express opinion, as well as to report, must be guaranteed and no legislation should be passed which impinges on that right.”

The study recommends serious due diligence and considerations by all politicians for media rights before launching libel lawsuits but acknowledges that sometimes such suits may be justified. But, if they are, and if the courts rule libel and/or defamation have been proven, the CPA study urges the courts to be careful when assessing damages because “excessive or disproportionate levels of damages in legal actions have a chilling effect on free speech and should be discouraged” – for which all media workers say “thank you, we’ll try to be kinder.”

And, should we – writer or politician – ever have to apologize, may our regrets be as skillful as those offered by Irish politician R.B. Sheridan who said, when asked to say he was sorry for calling a fellow MP a liar: “Mr. Speaker. I said the honourable member was a liar it is true and I am sorry for it. The honourable member may place the punctuation where he pleases.”

A Weary Road For Justice

It took seven years, but a pair of Saskatchewan businessmen have finally won their claim to have been wrongfully accused of workplace misdemeanours and fired “for cause” on Jan. 20, 2012.

I’m raising the matter here in Victoria, a few thousand kilometres from Saskatoon, only because the prairie fire that sparked that seven-year-old war of words appears to be breaking anew on Vancouver Island. The backdrop is a little different as are the occupations of the lead players – but the events that led to their arbitrary removal from important jobs have key similarities, and flash warning signals from the prairie-past to those who walk a similarly hazardous Vancouver Island trail today.

William Antonishyn, 62, and Brian Swidrovich, 56, were senior managers with Credit Union Centre. The company is now known as SaskTelCentre. In a story published Feb. 26, 2019, Saskatoon Star Phoenix reporter Andrea Hill tells us in 2011 the year before their firing, Antonishyn and Swidrovich had earned a little more than $100.000.

The Star Phoenix states the charge leading to their dismissal claimed the pair “had inappropriately expended nearly $8,000 on a trip to Arizona with the organization’s outgoing executive director in the fall of 2011. Expenses included airfare, meals, drinks, golf and tickets to an Arizona Cardinals football game.”

Through their lawyer, Larry Seiferling, the pair launched a wrongful dismissal suit arguing the trip, and subsequent agenda had been company arranged. Lawyers for the company argued at trial there was no legitimate reason for the trip; that it was not approved by a new director or the board of directors, and that Antonishyn and Swidrovich should have known better than to attend.

Justice Richard Elson rejected the argument. The Star Phoenix reports that prior to the hiring of a new director – (hired after the Arizona trip was planned) – the management team was given “a relatively free hand” in deciding how to make the centre successful and had gone on similar trips with no repercussions.

In British Columbia, Speaker Darryl Plecas has touched off an explosive debate on what he and his once special advisor, now reporting as his chief of staff, regard as a litany of reckless public spending which could prove to be criminal. As a result of those charges, the BC Legislature suspended Senior Clerk of the House Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz from their duties pending a fact-finding inquiry by a retired judge.

James and Lenz have been granted limited time to defend their actions in early proceedings but insist they are all legal and explainable. All they can do is wait – and hope the investigating Judge will clear their names and eliminate the need to launch further legal action claiming wrongful dismissal. 

In upholding the claim that Antonishyn and Swidrovich had been fired without just cause, Justice Elson said he understood new standards had been introduced in the workplace, but they couldn’t be applied retrospectively. “I find it questionable for (a new director) to have retrospectively applied his own standards to practices that existed well before he arrived on the scene.”

The two men will receive between $250,000 to $300,000 each in compensation. Their lawyer says some consideration is being given to appealing the lack of compensation for moral and punitive damage in the court decision.

“I’ve just got to look at whether the amount for the years that these people have suffered and waited is correct. At the end of the day, they are happy that they finally got the court to say they didn’t do anything wrong, but there’s still some sense of frustration with the process – with the length of time and the fact that your life can be ruined by something like this.”

How long will the BC epic lurch along? No bets, but the Saskatchewan case, simple in comparison, took seven years to settle and left several battered personal lives in its wake.

There has to be a better way.