Month: March 2019

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.