Author: theoldislander

About theoldislander

retried journalist blogging on word press at

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.”

Better To Build Than Break

Until a few days ago, Sir John A. Macdonald was fairly high on the list of achievers of Scottish descent who had carried inherited ideals to remote corners of the world.

But on August 21st, the ever-babbling Internet informed the world the Scottish National Party had ordered a purge of Sir John’s name from its honour rolls “following concerns raised by Canadian indigenous people about his legacy.” The story noted that the precipitous decision by the municipal council of Victoria, capital of British Columbia, to remove a statue of Sir John from City Hall, had encouraged the Scots to act.

How justified are the charges that Sir John was at the helm when grievous acts, unfair and unfounded, were taken against First Nations who had traditionally occupied the territories then coveted by waves of white settlers? How strong the suggestion that he was responsible for the incredible shame of the residential school system?

In our democracy, we have long held the captain of the ship responsible for the conduct of the crew. So, when today’s world blames Sir John for decisions to force natives to obey new government rules or lose their food supplies, we can join the lament against such faulty logic, such inconceivable thinking. But, we must remember whatever bad decisions were made, they were composite decisions … decisions made by cabinet, not by one man.

So, when we talk injustice, reconciliation or whatever we want to call modern cries against ancient sins, let us talk with measured and soft voices; let us talk without anger, always without hidden or obvious calls for revenge and, always, with balanced judgment.

It has become standard for Prime Minister Macdonald’s critics to list native residential schools among his greatest evils. That wise men could actually believe you could remove 150,000 children from their homes, lock them in schools barely a half-step better than prison and improve their minds and wellbeing, is certainly inconceivable today. It happened, but it wasn’t the worst of the things that happened in that shameful chapter of Canadian and Christian church history.

We don’t like to talk too much about the Christian contribution to the shame of residential schools, but we should keep it clearly in mind that many of the faults and sins in those infamous institutions were made by the people who staffed them. And, Sir John A. Macdonald should not be unfairly blamed.

One final thought to throw into the equation before we completely cover our founding father and ourselves in the sackcloth of repentance: Consider this February 2018 press release from the University of Victoria:

A new law program at the University of Victoria is the world’s first to combine the intensive study of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous law, enabling people to work fluently across the two realms.

Students will graduate with two professional degrees, one in Canadian Common Law (Juris Doctor or ‘JD’) and one in Indigenous Legal Orders (Juris Indigenarum Doctor or ‘JID’).  Their education will benefit areas such as environmental protection, Indigenous governance, economic development, housing, child protection and education – areas where currently there is an acute lack of legal expertise to create institutions that are grounded in Indigenous peoples’ law and to build productive partnerships across the two legal systems. 

“This program builds on UVic’s longstanding commitment to, and unique relationship with, the First Peoples of Canada. The foundational work for this program has been underway for several years, building on Indigenous scholarship for which UVic is known internationally,” says UVic President Jamie Cassels. 

“This joint-degree program is also a direct response to a call of action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to establish Indigenous law institutes for the development, use and understanding of Indigenous law.” 

Senator Murray Sinclair, former judge and Chief Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said of the joint JD/JID program and Indigenous Legal Lodge: “They are precisely what we had hoped would follow from the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and they promise to form the very best of legacies: A set of initiatives that reject and reverse the pattern of denigration and neglect identified in our report, and that establish the conditions for effective action long into the future.”

Ii may be hard for some to accept in a province where the horrors of the residential school were so real; but lessons were learned and corrective action has, and is, being taken. There is still a long way to go and the road to reconciliation will always be a tough one to travel with such a heavy load of baggage from the past.

It will best be traveled if we have reminders of the past in clear view and never forget that cries for justice are best seasoned with mercy and delivered with an ambition to build rather than break.



When Alaska Was Ours For The taking

Little more than 150 years ago Vancouver Island came within a pen stroke of owning Alaska by right of conquest.

As noted in this spot a week ago, in mid-1850s England, owners of what was then a remote Pacific Island were at war with Russia on the other side of the world in Crimea. Vancouver Island, with an infant settlement tucked in a sheltered bay, was prospering under its new name Victoria, that had been bestowed on June 10, 1843, by the Hudson Bay Company’s (HBC) Council of Northern Development meeting in Fort Garry. Five months later on November 10, Queen Victoria gave her blessing and Camosack, the original name bestowed by the First Nation Lekwungen people, and the briefly named HBC’s Fort Albert became Victoria.

It was soon playing an unusual role in the Crimean war – at least the Hudson Bay Company was. The new settlement was prospering and producing far more in crops than it required. HBC marketed some surplus south to Washington and Oregon – but its most lucrative market was to the north, Russian Alaska. The Russian trade was approved by London with HBC and the Russian American Company signing a neutral non-aggression pact for the duration.

A weird situation. On the Black Sea in Europe, British troops were finding the supply of everything from munitions to rations difficult to maintain; Florence Nightingale and her nurses were beginning their fight to reform field hospital care and nutrition. Meanwhile, on the Pacific Coast, the HBC was making a tidy profit from officially approved trade with the enemy.

In addition to the dollar value he was providing his company, headman James Douglas was keeping a wary eye on his Russian trading partner and on May 16, 1854, penned a formal report and request to the Duke of Newcastle in the Colonial Office in London.

London’s decision makers, weeks away by even the fastest mails, probably spilled a few drinks when they eventually received Douglas’s shopping list.

He was asking for 400 muskets, 100 Minie rifles (a new super rifle), general gear, uniforms and boots for 500 men he was convinced he could raise locally. He would need one year’s supply of rations, four light guns (artillery) and some heavy guns to protect the entrance to Victoria Harbour. And, almost as a footnote, he said a squadron of the Royal Navy’s Pacific Fleet would help.

What did he intend to do with his instant army? In their book, British Columbia Chronicle 1847-1871, historians G.P.V. Akrigg and Helen B. Akrigg tell us what they found when they dug through British Public Records. Wrote Douglas: “A very serious injury might be inflicted on Russia by taking possession of all her settlements on the American coast north of Queen Charlotte Islands (now Haida Gwaii). They are all upon the seaboard and accessible to shipping. Their defences are on a scale merely calculated to cope with savages and could not be maintained against a regular force.”

The warriors of Whitehall were not impressed with the Douglas plan and launched instead a joint French-British land-sea attack on Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula. It was a brief and disastrous campaign with the British and French soon in full retreat. The British, with 26 dead and 79 wounded, retired to Victoria (Esquimalt); the French, with 26 dead and 78 wounded, to San Francisco.

Among the English dead was Rear Admiral David Price, overall commander of the operation. After his thwarted attack he attempted suicide by a shot to the heart, missed his target but hit a lung. In incredible pain he begged his second in command to finish the job but the officer refused to kill his commanding officer. Price died in agony a few days later.

The meticulous Akrigg historical researchers suggest Whitehall would have been better off accepting the Douglas offer: “Had the warships so ineffectually used at Petropavlovsk directed their guns against the weak Alaskan establishments, with landing parties made up of Douglas’s 500 Scots, French-Canadians and Indians, the campaign could hardly have failed.” They also noted that Russia had lost interest in its North American holdings and would probably have been open to offers to hand ownership to Britain as part of the treaty Russia signed in defeat to end the war in Crimea.

Whether the UK was slow to pick up on the offer or had enough with wild west acquisitions isn’t known, but all opportunity was lost in 1867 when Russia offered America its Alaska holdings for $7.2 million.

For those who love useless trivia it works out to two cents an acre.



From Camosack Peace To The Jaws of Hell

It looked promising from the start when James Douglas sailed into Camosack Harbour in 1842 on board the Hudson’s Bay Company Schooner Cadboro. He was looking for a site on which to build a replacement for Fort Vancouver, which was in the process of being evicted from its old location on the banks of the Columbia River in the USA. Douglas had been wandering the coast for weeks looking for a sheltered harbour with an essential fresh water supply and – equally essential – enough arable land to feed the anticipated population.

He had poked his head into Sooke Harbour, Pedder Bay and Esquimalt Harbour. They were impressive but didn’t quite fit HBC requirements. Then came the day when the Cadboro found its way past what we now call Ogden Point, across West Bay and around Laurel Point to the Inner Harbour. There he anchored and made his – for Victoria – momentous decision: “I made Choice of a Site for the proposed new establishment in the Port of Camosack (Camosun) which appears to me decidedly the most advantageous situation within the Straits of Juan de Fuca …”

He returned to Fort Vancouver but was back in Camosack on March 16, 1843 – this time with a work party. He reported the weather “clear and warm and wild gooseberry bushes in bud.” He had 12 workers with him – six to dig wells, six “to start squaring timbers.” He later wrote that he informed the local natives of his intent to build a fort and “they offered to provide the pickets” for the pay of “one two-and-a-half point Hudson’s Bay blanket for 40 pickets.” A “picket” for the outer wall of the fort was to be “22 feet in length by 36 inches in circumference.” One blanket for 40 “pickets” was hardly a Bay Day bargain.

Douglas and other senior HBC officials supervised construction and explored the surrounding countryside for that vital arable land required to feed the occupants of the new outpost and new settlers the HBC hoped would follow. The success of their exploration and the hard work that followed the first plough is recorded in a detailed study compiled by Douglas in 1854 and published a year later as The Census of Vancouver Island, 1855.

The stats didn’t claim to be 100 percent accurate but were close: around 300 (white) people in the Victoria-Sooke area, plus 125 at Nanaimo and maybe 25 at Fort Rupert (Port Hardy). So, about 450 people in 1853 and all, especially the “254 persons in the (now named) town of Victoria,” requiring farm produce.

The 111 men, 50 women, and 93 children were well supplied. Eleven years after Douglas landed with his 12 workers, there were four farms in the Esquimalt area – Constance Cove, Esquimalt Farm, Maple Point (better known as Craigflower) and Viewpoint Farm. All four were Puget Sound Company operations.

Douglas ruled over the rural acres known then and now as Fairfield. There were North Dairy Farm, McPhail’s Dairy, Uplands Farm, Beckley Farm, and “Mr. Cooper’s farm at Belmont.” In addition, all the landed gentry of the day ran their own farm operations of varying sizes to contribute to the well-being and economic growth of a once tiny fort now rushing headlong toward urban status.

In 1853, the Fairfield farm produced 530 bushels of wheat, 300 bushels of oats, 150 bushels of peas, eight bushels of barley and 400 bushels of potatoes. It was located on 90 acres of “improved land” and 328 acres “unimproved.” It was home for “10 horses, four cows, 12 working oxen, six “other cattle,” 44 swine and 26 poultry.

John Work, the Hudson’s Bay man, was up in the high production ranks with “40 acres of improved land and 543 acres unimproved” producing 500 bushels of wheat, 200 of oats, 100 of peas, 1,200 of potatoes plus 150 pounds of butter. He stabled 18 horses, milked seven cows, worked 12 oxen and had 20 “other cattle,” 59 swine and a modest four poultry.

In total, in 1853 Victoria area farms produced 4,715 bushels of wheat, 1,730 of oats, 1,567 of peas, 381 of barley, 900 pounds of wool, 6,125 bushels of potatoes, 690 pounds of cheese, 4,544 pounds of butter and 100 tons of turnips from 1,418 acres of improved land, 9005 unimproved with the aid of 284 horses, 240 cows, 216 working oxen, 560 “other cattle”, 6,214 sheep, 1,010 swine and 1121 chickens.

Production was more than needed to well feed the expanding population, so what happened to the surplus? Simple, they sold or traded it, some south to the States but most north to Russian Alaska. Trade ties between the HBC and its Russian counterpart were so strong that when the Crimean War (1853-56) between Russia and England broke out, the companies shook hands on their own “peace treaty” – or at least a free-trade non-aggression pact. There was “concern” in British Columbia and Russian Alaska that led to some “military defence preparations,” but not enough to seriously interfere with the trade which continued virtually uninterrupted with both governments turning a blind eye.

On Vancouver Island in the mid-1850s, life was good, the trade link with Russia firm – at least out in the far west. While businesslike farmers on Vancouver Island were counting their revenues from trade with Russia, England’s leading pacifist John Bright was pleading with Parliament to stop the war with Crimea.

“I shall not say one word here about the state of the army in Crimea, or one word about is numbers or its condition,” he told a subdued House of Commons. “Every member of this House, every inhabitant of this country, has been sufficiently harrowed with details regarding it. To my solemn belief thousands – nay, scores of thousands of persons – have retired to rest, night after night, whose slumbers have been disturbed, or whose dreams have been based upon the sufferings and agonies of our soldiers in the Crimea.”

It is said the silence was palpable when Bright, a Quaker by religion, launched his eloquent appeal to stop the bloodshed: “I am certain that many homes in England in which there now exists a fond hope that the distant one may yet return – many such homes may be rendered desolate when the next mail shall arrive. The angel of death has been abroad throughout the land you may almost hear the beating of his wings … He takes his victims from the castle of the noble, the mansion of the wealthy, and the cottage of the poor and the lowly, and it is on behalf of all these classes that I make this solemn appeal … to put an end to this war.”

They didn’t listen to John Bright in England and on Vancouver Island they didn’t even know he had made his eloquent appeal for peace. They did eventually learn about the Crimea War and 600 cavalrymen charging to certain death in the madness known as The Charge of the Light Brigade – one of the greatest blunders in British military history.

With Pride and Some Prejudice

When I wrapped up my few comments on Soccer’s World Cup contest in Russia a few weeks ago, my last line was one of regret that the nations sending teams to Moscow and beyond couldn’t use the same formula to settle more serious disputes.

How sweet it was, I thought, getting all on-field tussles settled instantly by a referee and two line judges backed by instant slow-motion playbacks if any particular incident had been too fast for the human eye to follow. 

How encouraging for future world peace to see teams from around the world paying respect to their opponents singing their homeland national anthem, and then bursting with pride to sing their own while their fans joined in their thousands from the stands. None was more inspirational than La Marseillaise, composed in 1792 by Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle and the national anthem of France since 1795. It’s a spine-tingler when witnessed on TV and an emotional roller coaster if you’re ever lucky enough to be in a crowded stadium and hear 30,000 to 40,000 French fans lift their team as they rejoice in their country’s national song. But it isn’t what you would call a hymn for peace and brotherly love.

It’s better if you join in and enjoy the music but don’t pay attention to the words because they leave no doubt as to what the French are singing about. It isn’t the perfection of their passes, the precision of their set-plays from corners or free kicks. The first stanza sets the scene: “Let’s go children of the fatherland / The day of glory has arrived! / Against us tyranny’s / Bloody flag is raised! (repeat) / In the countryside, do you hear / The roaring of these fierce soldiers? / They come right to our arms / To slit the throats of our sons, our friends.” And then the triumphant chorus: “Grab your weapons, citizens! / Form your battalions! / Let us march! Let us march! May impure blood / Water our fields.”

Thankfully, the French usually excuse us from more than the first stanza and chorus at soccer and rugby games. The second stanza opens with “This horde of slaves, traitors, plotting kings, what do they want? For whom these vile shackles, these long prepared irons?” and sounds more like the threat of a New Zealand Maori Haka than a joyous rallying cry for a sporting team. But, I guess if it kept the mob together long enough to storm the Bastille and win the great revolution, it’s worth reminding today’s generation where their freedoms come from.

Not all World Cup national anthems carried a “remember the revolution theme” although most had at least a few lines reminding singers and listeners that, in the not too distant past, some of them were literally fighting for their lives as nations.

Mexicans sing “Mexicans, at the cry of war / Make ready the steel and the bridle/And let the earth shake to the core / At the roar of the cannon.” The second verse is a little softer calling its citizens to crown their heads with the olive wreath of peace because peace is Mexico’s eternal destiny as written in heaven then adds: “But should a foreign enemy / Profane your ground with their sole / Think, oh beloved country, that heaven has given you a soldier in every son.”

Scotland didn’t have a team in World Cup 2018 – and it doesn’t have an official national anthem – but anytime its team performs on a world stage it powers through Flower of Scotland, a solemn but moving dirge reminding today’s Scots of the time their forefathers “stood against Proud Edward’s army and sent him homewards, Tae, think again.” That would be the Battle of Bannockburn under the lead of Robert the Bruce. Solemnly, the Scots sing: “Those days are past now, and in the past they must remain, but we can still rise now, and be the nation again, that stood against him, Proud Edwards army, and sent him homeward, Tae, think again.”

And there are one or two nations with anthems of rare beauty. Wales, like Scotland, wasn’t at the World Cup of soccer. But, come this fall, it will be popping up at international rugby events and sweeping crowds of 75,000 or more to sing along in the Welsh language when that country’s anthem precedes every game it plays on the big stage. It is a fact that the Welsh national anthem is always sung in Welsh – but you can get an English version and join in your English unnoticed. A few scattered lines:

The land of my fathers is dear to me, / Old land where the minstrels are honoured and free; / Its warring defenders so gallant and brave, / For freedom their life’s blood they gave / Though foemen have trampled my land ‘neath their feet, / The language of Cambria still knows no retreat; / The muse is not vanquished by traitor’s fell hand, / Nor silenced the harp of my land.”

Then the final chorus: “Wales, Wales, true am I to Wales, While seas secure the land so pure, O may the old language endure.”

A favourite? I think so. One of the Cinderella teams in the World Cup contest was Iceland. It won admiration on the field for sportsmanship and the surprising quality of its on-field skills. Iceland’s anthem is titled Lofsongur (Song of Praise). There are several translations with some slightly longer than my choice, and YouTube has an array of choral versions. It’s worth a listen.

“O God of our land, O our land’s God,

We worship thy holy, holy name.

From the solar systems of the heavens

Bind for you a wreath

Your warriors, the assembly of the ages.

For thee is one day as a thousand years

And a thousand years a day and no more,

One small flower of eternity with a quivering tear,

That prays to God and dies.

Iceland’s thousand years, Iceland’s thousand years,

One small flower of eternity with a quivering tear,

That prays to its God and dies.”


An Invitation to the Angel of Death

President Donald Trump is not the most serious threat to the wellbeing of the United States of America. That threat is the powerful men who permit him to rage unchallenged and often incoherently and the evangelical church leaders who naively believe he has repented his past lifestyle.

It’s hard to say who is the most obnoxious … the high-priced suits elected to serve their country, but now focused solely on protecting their jobs; or, the well-dressed preachers who don’t seem to care what President Trump says or how he says it, as long as he keeps his promises to protect a few specific principles they hold dear.

A few months ago, when the President engaged in his first slanging match with North Korea, he warned the small nation’s leader Kim Jong Un that as U.S. Commander in Chief he had at his disposal weapons capable of the mass destruction of Kim and his country. A few days ago, he was using the same bad-mouth bully talk to warn Iran’s religious leaders to exercise caution in their rhetoric.


A few observations on Trump’s illogic: He says if the USA ever feels threatened by Iranian rhetoric it will respond “with consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.” He used similar bluster-bombs with Kim Jong Un warning him that his country could be wiped from the face of the earth with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if push ever came to shove.

Then there was the muscle phrase “you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered.” No clue as to who those few were or what they suffered. We can presume fire and fury and consequences never before seen suggests Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the only cities in the world to suffer and survive – at horrendous cost – nuclear attacks. It is hard to believe the United States of America would be willing to lead the world into a third nuclear apocalypse.

Another thought on the word slingers in the realms of international diplomacy. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo had a brief comment about Iran’s leaders warning about the ‘hypocritical holy men” who run the country. I thought it introduced an unusual brand of diplomacy to the proceedings.

I’m sure hypocritical holy men are not a rare breed existing only in Muslim countries. I’m also sure President Trump is one of the last men in the world with the right to complain about anyone else using excessive rhetoric.

Which brings me to my point: I didn’t read or hear of any Christian holy men taking the President to task for the violence and arrogance of his threats. It’s possible that ministers of Christian flocks used Trump’s volatile tantrums as a Sunday sermon theme. Possible, but not likely.

So far, only one or two have wondered out loud if the White House thunder mug should be reminded of the advice of James the Apostle who warned of the dangerous power of the unbridled tongue. “The tongue,” he wrote, “is a fire, a world of iniquity. So is the tongue among our members that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.”

Trump supporters insist that tough talk has so far held the dogs of war at bay. Maybe, but I can’t shake the feeling that President Trump would love a session as Commander in Chief with his army in the field; and that he has no idea at all what follows when the “fateful lightning and His terrible swift sword” are released. And the Angel of Death takes the harvest she feels her due.