Month: August 2020

“Obscure” — But Once Champions

It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when the people elected to serve their fellow citizens in parliament did everything in their power to prevent the reasons for their decisions being made public. They didn’t mind the ultimate decisions being distributed, but they didn’t want the sometimes-shaky reasoning behind those decisions made public.

Andrew Sparrow writing in his book, “Obscure Scribblers, a History of Parliamentary Journalism,” claims the British House of Commons “tried to stop the publication of debate reports for more than 100 years, not because members were shy about having their names in the papers but because they realized that being reported would render them accountable.”

A week ago, I quoted one of the more outspoken and articulate Members of Parliament, one William Windham, Minister of War in the 1700s when England was at war with France, and a small group of men were gaining modest public readership for their reporting of parliamentary debate. Windham was feeling the sting of criticism from this coterie of scribes once banned from the Chamber, but now, to Windham’s alarm, exercising more freedom of speech than anticipated.

They wanted a return to the good old days when citizens could listen to debates if they could get one of the scarce tickets permitting entry. Reporters could report, but with great care – or risk serious punishment. In 1798, according to Windham, the limited circulation of those pamphlet-sized reports was a daily threat to the life of the government. 

Windham and his followers viewed with dismay what they regarded as an abuse of free speech, even when what was being relayed to the public from the House of Commons was basic reporting on what had been said and by whom. It was a system of reporting that eventually developed into what is named today “Hansard,” the verbatim record of daily debate in western democratic parliaments around the world; a daily record revered for its accuracy.

Windham had no respect for scruffy scribes or 1798 debate publishers. He felt open reporting of debates seriously threatened the elected representative government first dreamed of under the Magna Carta and still fragile. One day he asked parliament what its aim could be in supporting open debate publication and wondered if there could be something sinister behind a move to make parliament more democratic.

He answered his own question by saying the only aim debate publishers could have “must be that of changing the present form of government, and of making it more democratical, for it was calling every day on the public to judge the proceedings of parliament. By these daily publications, people learned to look upon themselves as present at the discussion of parliament and sitting in judgment of them.”

We can look back on these old fights between opposing politicians and most politicians and the press, and be thankful we have come out of it so well. For all their faults, governments mighty and modest serve us reasonably well. But heaven forbid that we should stop complaining when they screw up, as they do from time to time. Like Windham did when saw a critical news leaflet.

When it comes to the press, I’m biased. It was such a vital part of my life for 75-plus turbulent years and enjoyment beyond description. I was fortunate to be a reporter when that is what I was supposed to be – writing just the facts; an opinion columnist when my job was to voice my opinions; and a daily newspaper editor when I shared editorial page responsibility with the publisher and had a talented news writing to consistently made me look a lot better than I was in a treasured occupation.

I’m glad I was where I was when I was. But I’m saddened in recent years to see the press, once the giant of all published news, toppled from its once lofty pedestal by a mob of seemingly always angry, undisciplined, disciples of social media.

By Sufferance

A bit of a kerfuffle shaking the dust from filing cabinets in the Alberta Legislature Press Gallery. Seems that the worthy inmates of that venerable institution recently voted to uphold an earlier rejection of a Gallery membership bid from Rebel News Network Ltd.

That, trumpeted the National Post – the flagship of a once-powerful newspaper family – was a travesty of justice, a betrayal of all that is holy in the battle for free speech and a free press.

That was a bit much coming from a newspaper chain that has recently presided over the disarmament of a once-proud army of active journalists and amalgamated (read: gutted) the editorial staffs of the Vancouver Sun, the Province, the Calgary Herald, the Edmonton Journal … the heavy hitters out west.

Maybe the faded ivory towers of once-great newspapers brought back dreams of grandeur and persuaded remote control bosses that now would be a good time to win a second Pulitzer award. After all, the Edmonton Journal got to grasp a share of a Pulitzer – the first-ever awarded outside the USA – way back in 1938 because it went to bat for a relatively unknown political columnist named Donald C. Brown, who had been charged and found guilty of “scandalous misrepresentation.”

(After being overruled by Ottawa and challenged by many others. Social Credit Premier William Aberhart withdrew all charges).

The National Post was roaring to the defence of Rebel News that had a hot reputation for ill-chosen language, controversy, and inaccuracy. The Post argued that even though the Rebel’s publications could be a little wild at times, their breaches were not severe enough to justify withholding Gallery access from its staffers.

The Gallery executive disagreed. It held firm in its demand for high professional standards. Then, the Post flexed its national muscle and played what it thought was an ace card: “Grant Rebel certification or we will pull our reporters out of the Press Gallery.”

As of this writing, the Gallery hasn’t budged. It has carefully weighed the quality of Rebel’s work and found it wanting. And, if it maintains that position of refusing to endorse journalism it regards as not just inferior but dangerous, the National Post editorial writers will have learned a fundamental lesson about newsgathering.

It might help them if they spent a few hours reading about how our system of parliament got started. It wasn’t easy. That was because the last thing members of parliament wanted was publicity of any kind about what they were debating and how they were debating.

The first House of Commons did everything it could to prevent publication of debates and reports. Historians figure it took close to 100 years before MPs got used to telling the people what they were up to. Back in 1798, British MP and Minister of War William Windham, lamented that the naval mutiny of the previous year had been caused by “parliamentary reports of an evil nature.”

Windham also waxed eloquent on the theme that newspaper writers “were not the best judges of political affairs” and that the great unwashed public was “not the most discerning class of society.”

He lamented that when he moved around town, he saw newspapers “being carried everywhere, read everywhere, by persons of inferior capacities, and in common alehouses and places frequented chiefly by those who were least accustomed to reflection, to any great mental effort.”

Fast forward 200 years to April 2002, and British MP Peter Mandelson is ending a long television interview with comments on the value of press interviews. “I think that those who report politics … I think they are a very inward-looking, very incestuous bunch of people who are overly preoccupied with process rather than policies. As a result, we are not getting the coverage of politics that the voters deserve.” 

As a reporter or columnist for 60 years or more, I always think at such times of my old columnist hero Bob Considine. He taught me long ago that “whenever readers call in to accuse you of being a bum, always consider the possibility they could be right.”

I share that Considine thought for the benefit of those who defend the spiteful spread of malicious, racist, unfounded hate and those who defend such evil as justifiable “free speech.”

One of the worst things to ever happen to “the press” was its description in 1787 by Edmund Burke, who used it in a parliamentary debate. Pointing to the Gallery where they sat, he proclaimed that there were “Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.” Arrogantly, we believed him; many reporters still do.

But only until we remember the alternative quote believed coined by Rudyard Kipling but first used, with permission, by his cousin Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in a speech in London on March 18, 1931. At least two major newspaper publishers were in the audience to hear his message that they held “power without responsibility: the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”

The press retains its position in free world parliaments today as defined by Sir Barnett Cocks, when he was Clerk of the House of Commons in the 1960’s. “The press,constitutionally and historically, is here on sufferance.”

A sobering truth.

Before We Had Any “safety nets”

Starting to feel a little “stroppy” with all this wearying COVID-19 stuff? Can’t shake hands, no hugs. Staying social distances apart from your closest and dearest. Wearing a mask if you’re anywhere near a crowd – and a crowd is more than two or three people.

Has any generation before today ever had such a restrictive lifestyle, such day by day, stressful living conditions?

Take a deep breath before you answer because the factual answer is that although we are a generation in frightful crisis, we have never had it so good. We have never been so cared for; never had a government so determined to keep a dollar in our pocket if health protection restrictions have shut down our job or are threatening the survival of a business.

Last week in this space, I reminded readers of times when life was really tough and those who lived well cared little about those less fortunate. I was talking about the days before Canadians, and a few other maturing nations started to become aware of the concept of community responsibility and recognize the need to prepare for disasters before they happened.

Young folk groan when grumpy old men start talking about the past. They shouldn’t because if we ever forget how bad we old folk were to each other when we were young and uncaring, we might find our world slipping back to those dark times.

You know … those were the times before we had Employment Insurance and before we had Old Age Security pensions (pitiful though they remain). It was a time when company pensions were few and far between. Those were the days when you couldn’t get a cent in compensation for on-the-job injuries, and health care was unaffordable for millions.

When I wrote last week of 148 coal miners dying in 1887 in a series of massive explosions on Vancouver Island, did you wonder what happened to the dozens of instant widows created by one negligent workplace act – an ill-placed explosive charge? Did you consider what happened to all the children left fatherless?

Mine owners were not entirely without pity. They had an old understanding with miners’ wives made widows. If there were male children in the family of working age, they would get selection privileges if they applied for the vacancy created by the death on the job of their father.

In mining accident records, it is not unusual to find 13- and 14-year-old children as breadwinners.

I have focused on Nanaimo in BC because I once lived and worked there, not because it was the only province caring less for its miners than it did for the value of the product of their labour. (Alberta topped BC in accident magnitude. In 1915, 189 miners were killed at the Hillcrest mine.)

Among the more bizarre BC mining tragedies shamefully scattered along the provincial timeline is the May 9, 1915 explosion at Southfield Mine, South Wellington.

Just before noon, a controlled explosion was fired too close to the old flooded Southfield Mine. Official reports bleakly note the shot “broke through into the old workings … As a result of this inflow of water, 19 men lost their lives by drowning.”

A coroner’s inquest followed the first investigation into the Springfield drownings. It was followed by manslaughter charges against two mine officials and finally heard before a jury on October 27, 1915.

And, that prestigious jury cleared the two officials – Mine Manager John H. Tomkin and Chief Inspector of Mines Thomas Graham – of all legal responsibilities. Graham resigned as chief inspector; Tonkin returned to Salt Lake City, Utah.

Within two years, the “drowning pit” was closed with all workers being transferred to the new Morden Colliery, which is now a historic park and dedicated to all deep pit miners whose dangerous work sustained the mining industry and kept the rest of us warm in winter.

Far more important is the “safety net” they and their miners’ union started to build so long ago, and we now take for granted.

Today, as I have written before, we are living in an “inconvenient,” but not hard, time. For a look at hard times, Google the Report of the BC Minister of Mines 1887; the Ladysmith and District A Tragedy of Error; and anything written by Lynn Bowen about mines and miners.

When Coal was King But Far From Proud

The troubles started in Extension, a small mining community a few kilometres south of Nanaimo in August 1912. Two coal miners were fired when they complained to management that unacceptable levels of explosive gas existed at the coal face. One of the workers headed north seeking a job in the mines of Cumberland only to find he had been blacklisted – not just in Cumberland but throughout Vancouver Island.

When the Cumberland miners heard of his plight, they proclaimed September 16th, 1912, a study day and downed tools to discuss the challenge to already hazardous working conditions. The following day they found themselves locked out and were informed they would remain locked out until they signed contracts vowing to end job action, quit their union, return to work and never again engage in trade union activity. 

The agreements, contemptuously called “yellow dog” contracts, saw the Cumberland miners stay off the job – and every other miner at every other pit on the Island followed in support of what the history books would call Vancouver Island’s Great Coal Strike.

It was a time when coal mining was the primary industry on the Island with large and small operations digging for the vital fuel from Ladysmith to Fort Rupert (Port Hardy). For months, mine owners were content to leave their mines silent, but by August 1913 – with stockpiles depleted and demand from ships, railways, and steam-driven heavy industry growing – they needed to get back into production. But their miners, concerned for decades about safety on the job as well as poor pay, were in no mood to compromise.

Their memories of a seemingly endless stream of disasters, from single deaths to the 150 dead in the Nanaimo No.1 mine explosion and fire in 1887, kept them implacable in their demands for greater safety. The workers were not always right in their beliefs or justified in their demands, which included an irrational ban on Chinese workers. But, their cries for more excellent safety and better social conditions in the mining communities were hard to deny.

But, deny them the mine owners did and, with the tacit agreement if not outright support of government, they brought in small armies of strike-breaking miners from San Francisco and as far away as Italy. Striking miners living in mine-owned houses were ordered to vacate and were evicted by “special constables” if they refused. The strikebreakers were to be the new occupants and were encouraged to defend what they were offered and provided with sticks and clubs and told to fight back when threatened.

In Europe WW1 was raging with horrendous battle casualties. On Vancouver Island striking miners and imported strike-breakers engaged in mine-head or street corner clashes with miniscule fatalities but many broken heads and limbs.

On August 5th, a group of strikebreakers attacked and stabbed a striking miner. The assailants were subsequently arrested, but only after demands from a delegation of miners who complained of double standards in the enforcement of the law. On August 11th, a large rally virtually took over Nanaimo to protest the presence of strikebreakers, and the following day, 800 strikers and their families marched in a similar protest in South Wellington. That protest led to the expulsion of “the scabs” from the Wellington area and encouraged the protesters to march on to Ladysmith, where, as August 13th dawned, the protest turned violent.

When one protester began to sing “Hurray, hurray, we’ll drive the scabs away,” he was arrested and jailed in Ladysmith. A report published by the Simon Fraser University Labour Studies Program tells us the miner was freed by his wife, “a veritable Amazon in build, vigour and strength” who rallied a group of strikers and marched to the jail where “wielding an axe she freed her husband.”

Rioting continued through the night with homes and other mine company property destroyed. It culminated in a bundle of dynamite being thrown into the home of strikebreaker Alex McKinnon who was badly injured as he tried to protect his children from the blast. It took more than a year before two perpetrators were brought to trial, and it was revealed that they were neither strikers nor strikebreakers but two citizens “who were drunk and had allowed their participation to go too far.” They were sent to prison.

On August 20th, 2011, (when I wrote this original column) – there was a day of remembering Vancouver Island’s mining industry at the Morden Colliery Historic Park a few kilometres south of Nanaimo.

Morden had never earned a high degree of fame for production or notoriety on the mine-tragedy scale. And only the weather and time damaged head-frame at the pithead of Morden Colliery plus a few other structures remained as bleak ruined monuments of British Columbia’s coal mining industry, gaunt reminders of the men who had worked the coal seams – and all too often, in their hundreds – died in the dark.

In April 2019, the provincial government approved a grant of $1.4 million to restore and preserve the Morden Mine coal tipple, the only one surviving in Canada and one of only two remaining in North America.

It remains a work in progress but is open to visitors this summer. Google “Friends of Morden Mine” or go to Facebook or Morden Colliery Historic Provincial Park for how to get there, and up to date visiting times. If you would like a fuller picture of what life was like when coal was King and coal barons brutal, find a copy of Three Dollar Dreams by Lynn Bowen – and understand why a restored coal tipple is a worthy monument.

When “for ever” Is Sometimes Shorter

When, in the late 1600s, the government of England proclaimed the 29th day of May should henceforth, “be kept forever as a day of thanksgiving for redemption …” it was voicing bizarre evil.

The English Civil War (1642-1649) was fought between the royalist forces loyal to King Charles I and the parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell. The Royalist were defeated at the Battle of Naseby in 1645 and Cromwell declared Britain a republic and went on to become it’s Lord Protector. Following his death in 1658 the monarchy was restored and Charles II became king on May 29, 1660.

We can be thankful that, although it remained unchanged for 200 years, it doesn’t seem to have been more than a brief tear drop in the great clock of time. I am not referring to today’s traditional month of May holiday celebrated these days on the “Monday preceding May 25” and so ordered by Queen Victoria.

My lament is much more dramatic with a dazzle of handsome cavaliers, superbly mounted, riding through the night to protect a bonny Prince Charles from Oliver Cromwell’s hard-faced “Roundheads.”

Early morning – 3 a.m., the record keepers say – Prince Charles with a party of 60 loyalists is on the run, survivors of the Battle of Worcester hoping to find a night’s rest with sympathizers. Instead, they are advised Cromwell’s troopers are already searching for them locally.

The Prince and two officers are advised to select one of the large nearby oak trees in which they could hide throughout the dawning day before continuing what was now a dash for the coast and the safety of a ship to Europe. It was some 30 years before Charles – then King Charles II – could tell his story to the great diarist Samuel Pepys.

A local supporter led them to “a great oak in a plain place where we could see all around us. It had been lopped some three or four years before and was grown out very bushy and thick and could not be seen through. And there we sat all day …”

The only facts history can guarantee for that night of high adventure are that Charles was on the run in that specific area; that he did avoid capture; and that he found sanctuary in Europe. And, there are claims that acorns from oak trees in the geographic area of the incident provide positive genetic links.

One day, an enterprising tree specialist may track down such a link and plant a clinically proven seedling out Elk-Beaver Lake way – a bona fide descendant of King Charles II confirming the early settlers’ approval to the name given to the chosen district of Saanich on today’s map. It was known as “the lake district’ when they moved in, changed to Royal Oak by common usage as they settled in.

But, then again, there’s a “but” for everything and quite a few to attach to the Glamourous Charles II, who came back to England from exile in 1660 to finally claim the crown he was denied when he hid in the oak tree.

His nemesis Oliver Cromwell had died during Charles’ exile in 1658 and was honoured by a state funeral at Westminster Abbey equal in magnificence to any bestowed on any Monarch before him. His son Richard replaced him, but an army revolt quickly ended his leadership career, and Charles II was back home, king at last.

The new king moved fast on a fearsome journey of revenge. One of Parliament’s first decisions under Charles II was a response to royal demands that Cromwell, dead and buried in Westminster Abbey two years earlier, be disinterred and brought to trial for the murder of King Charles I.

Two of Cromwell’s advisors, John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton, followed the same Parliamentary fates. All three were found guilty. Their corpses beheaded and placed on 6.1 metres (20-feet) poles at the entrance to Westminster Hall, where the trial had been held.

And what has all or any of the proceeding to do with the opening paragraph of this piece that May 29 “be forever kept as a day of thanksgiving for our redemption from tyranny …”

It is interesting to wonder what Queen Victoria was thinking in 1859 when she authorized “the full and formal abolition” of the Bill to Celebrate the Birth of Charles II and basically replaced it with the holiday and birthday party for whoever sat on the English throne.