Author: theoldislander

About theoldislander

retired journalist blogging on word press at

Things Not Correctly Sequenced

Proponents of proportional representation ballots kept telling me they were the only kind to guarantee voters fair and truly democratic election result. They said I should not be confused by a change from the centuries-old first past the post system which with minor foibles has stood the test of time.

They said if I wanted proof of the fairness of PR voting I should take a look at Germany, Australia, New Zealand or other places where it has replaced FPTP.

So I did. I chose two of the three so often mentioned – Australia and New Zealand – not because we are members of the same Commonwealth family but because while my English language may be a little faulty from time to time it remains much better than my German. And as both had survived general elections in 2016 and 2017 they were current, ready to set a sparkling example.

Well, maybe “sparkling” isn’t a well-chosen word because the ‘‘proportional’s” varied for the different states and the Australia election was what they know down under as a “double dissolution election” one in which Australia elects a new national government and a new Senate.

I suggest readers who get lost under my guidance put Google to work. I do not have room – or desire – to present you with anything more than basics.Remember when checking Australia numbers ( wou will be looking at results for seats in parliament and completely separate results for Senate seats.

Wherever you lived in Australia your ballot paper would list your voting options. In New South Wales the (Senate)ballot ran the gamut of 41 Party’s ranging from the ultimate winning coalition of Liberal/Nationals and Nationals of 1,610,626 votes in NSW to the “also ran” Australian Progressives with 1,817.

If you vigilantly track down overview numbers you will find that Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party won one Senate seat with 1.9 per cent of the vote but no seats in what Canadians would call the House of Commons.The Family First Party also won a Senate seat but came up empty at the MP level 1.4 per cent vote.

If you find this worrisome, imagine what it will be like in BC if you ever have to face such lists on a BC ballot designed to make sure dubious seats can be made safe for fragile incumbents.

One final thought from Down Under before nipping over to New Zealand for a Kiwi look at proportional representation in a 2017 general election which saw the Liberal/National Coalition re-elected but in a minority position: since 2013 Australia’s government, elected by their version of PR designed to bring fresh air, transparency and stability to government they have used up five Prime Ministers – Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd,who lost the 2013 election to a Liberal coalition which over the next five years replaced PM Tony Abbott with PM Malcolm Turnbull who was shuffled out recently to be replaced by PM Scott Morrison.

Not exactly a stable government.

Now to New Zealand and last year’s election under PR rules with not as many hopeful party participants as their cousin Cousin Aussies but enough to make life interesting for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who hit the 2017 campaign trail a single woman – and won but not with enough seats to govern.

Waiting in the wings was one Winston Peters who had been defeated in the election but retained his seat in Parliament. Wikipedia tells us that despite being out-voted in his own riding his party, New Zealand First, “had secured 7.2 percent of the vote….since Peter’s ranked first on the New Zealand First Party list, he remained in Parliament as a list MP.”  A “list member” system is one of the options discussed in BC with details to be provided once approval to change the rules is given.

In October Peters announced his nine seat New Zealand First party would form a coalition with Ardern’s Labor to give her a working majority. The deal was confirmed and a year ago Peter’s, an election loser, became (Andrew Weaver is permitted to dream) the Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister for State Owned Enterprises and Minister for Racing.

Last January PM Ardern became the first Prime Minister in the Commonwealth to take maternity leave and a few weeks after the event introduced her new born to her cabinet as she returned to work.

And no, Peter’s was not the father. That honour belongs to a long-term boyfriend and she has said openly of their relationship: “It sounds terrible because we are very committed to each other. Marriage is just not something we have really gotten around to. We haven’t correctly sequenced, perhaps….”

Which appeals as a suitable final comment on promoters of proportional representation.



“We Will Not Defer Justice Or Right…”

It was in the summer of 1215 that the Archbishop of Canterbury penned the first version of the Magna Carta which became an essential building block in common law wherever democracy is genuinely cherished.

Only four copies of the original are known to exist today – one preserved and held in Lincoln Cathedral; one in Salisbury Cathedral and two in the British Library. Reprints or extracts flourish, often disguised in trimmed and streamlined modern prose, but echoing what legendary UK Judge Lord Denning once described as “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”

The Magna Carta informed England’s King John that henceforth “no freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or be disseised (have his property confiscated) of his freehold, or liberties, or free customs, or be outlawed, or exiled or any otherwise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his deed, or by the law of the land. We will sell to no man; we will not deny or defer to any man either justice or right.”

With minor language changes, it remains law today. To ensure justice was done, the authors of the new treaty made certain King John understood his “lawmakers and peacekeepers” were now out of the brutal dictatorial way of doing business; that the new administrators of the law “will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs or bailiffs only those who know the law of the realm and who wish to observe it well.”

Some 800 years later, the phraseology may have changed, but the foundational reforms of the Magna Carta remain the same bedrock on which our democratic freedoms stand.

The authors of the Canadian Bill of Rights (1960) acknowledged they were building on and re-endorsing old and sometimes neglected laws: “It is hereby recognized and declared that in Canada there have existed and shall continue to exist without discrimination by reason of race, national origin, colour, religion or sex the following human rights and fundamental freedoms: The right of the individual to life, liberty, security of person and enjoyment of property, and the right to not be deprived thereof except by due process of law; the right of the individual to equality before the law and the protection of the law; freedom of religion; freedom of speech; freedom of assembly and association and freedom of the press.”

The Charter fleshes these freedoms out a little and urges Canadians to be alert and ready to oppose any new laws that could be construed to “impose or authorize the imposition of cruel and unusual treatment or and unusual punishment … or to deprive a person who has been arrested or detained of the right to be informed promptly of the reason for his arrest or detention.”

It may be argued that when legislative clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz were escorted from the Legislature by police and Alan Mullen, an investigator hired by Speaker Daryll Plecas, they were not placed under arrest. True, but,they were arbitrarily denied freedom of movement, banned from their offices and suspended with pay from their duties simply because as yet unnamed informers had suggested they be the subject of a criminal investigation.

The government reacted immediately. In a rare display of unanimity, opposition Liberal MLAs joined the NDP and its three Green camp followers to pass a government motion ordering that James and Lenz be suspended with full pay. Without debate, the bewildered pair were denied freedom of movement, marched to their respective offices – flanked by a policeman and a self-proclaimed private investigator – to collect personal belongings.

The proceedings were recorded on television news cameras for all the world to see the bewildered embarrassment of two highly respected public servants being removed from key positions in the Legislature pending investigation of unconfirmed suspicions. They have been informed they are being investigated, but for what remains a mystery at this writing.

The RCMP and the provincial government, including its three ragged Green standard bearers, piously whimper they are banned from commenting on the incident because it is under police investigation. And the Liberals fume that they were, betrayed, not given all the facts before they voted on the suspension motion.

Not the most inspirational look at a democratic parliament in action, and a far cry from the time in 1642 when King Charles I marched into parliament with an armed guard and demanded the whereabouts of five MPs critical of his policies. Speaker William Lenthall replied with one of the shortest but most powerful speeches ever heard in a British parliament: “I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am.”

I am left with them impression that today’s inhabitants of the BC Legislature lack the ability to clearly understand their role in the protection of the foundations of democracy so hard fought to obtain and to hold for centuries by clerks,  Speakers and members of legislative assemblies. They seem to forget they are where they are as servants of the people.

Their actions in recent days do not synchronize well with the guarantees of Magna Carta or today’s Bill of Rights. Unconfirmed rumours, investigations with challengeable authority, refusal to indentify real or imagined causes for concern, are closer to Star Chamber proceedings than they are to what we proudly call “full disclosure” even as our Legislature, to its shame, denies even modest transparency.


(Italics used in text are mine, for emphasis.Jimh)


Silenced By An Apple

As I wrote some years ago and now repeat – it’s that time of year. Memory buds clicking on and off, some bright and others just a flicker but strong enough to re-kindle flames of decades-old memories.

Every year since I was old enough to appreciate the regrets of lost opportunity, December has been a month to dream of what might have been – or what would have been, if I had turned down a challenge to go “scrumping” in the orchard adjoining the residence of the Vicar of St. Mary’s Anglican Church in England’s industrial Midlands.

Scrumping involved scrambling over a six-foot wall anytime in late Fall, finding a tree with unpicked apples or a recent crop of windfalls and loading every available pocket before hoisting yourself back to safety to share the harvest with friends. Friends awaiting my return from a Vicar’s orchard forage in the late autumn of 1934 were fellow choristers, the boy soprano section of St. Mary’s choir practicing for a rare invitation to sing in Coventry Cathedral.

Early for choir practice, the devil was finding work for idle hands – and it was my turn to go over the wall.

At least that’s the way Reg Snape, organist, and choirmaster, saw things about an hour later when he found me unable to respond to his cry “Hume solo,” my mouth being full of apple. Practice that evening was one of many “specials” designed to prepare the choir for a Christmas festival in Coventry Cathedral. On discovering that his entire soprano section had been eating stolen goods supplied by one “scrumper,” he banished me from the choir – permanently.

Scrumping may have been regarded as a youthful autumn sport throughout England – but not by Mr. Snape. To him, it was outright stealing from the vicar and must be punished harshly. Fortunately, banishment to the Colonies was no longer an option, but the expulsion of one fallen choir soprano was a choice open to Mr. Snape that would discourage other potential scrumpers. He took it. I was expelled.

In the spring of 2002, I stood with my son Andrew in the shell of old Coventry Cathedral, built in 1373, destroyed by German bombers on November 14, 1940. I told him how I almost got to sing a solo there in 1934 as the organ (once played by Handel) lifted my less than angelic voice to the heavens.

I was able to tell him how the last time I had stood where we were then standing was on the morning of November 15, 1940, when I was amid still smouldering timbers wired in the shape of a cross – the ruins where the altar once stood. A simple message at its foot, placed there within hours of the air raid, read “Father forgive.”

The original charred-cross timbers are still preserved, but a replica replaces it above the Altar of Reconciliation. The original scrawled message, now carved on the altar wall remains unchanged: “Father forgive.”

At noon every Friday since November 1940, the old Coventry Cathedral has conducted a brief ceremony to remember the day of destruction. The congregation is asked to participate with the two-word response, “Father Forgive,” as the final clause of Coventry Litany of Reconciliation is recited as a statement of faith: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

Non-Christians can find their own final words.

And, I can still dream about the day I almost got to sing there but was done in by an apple.


Readers Prefer a Dash Of Spice

We may like to think that we moderns brought the world its twittering classes and face to face gossip exchanges, but the fact is both classes were on the scene and active millenniums ago.

Their range wasn’t as great as it is today, but the format was identical and a few hundred kilometers north of its now capital city of Victoria native nations of Nootka Sound used it to keep up to date on events.

It was in Nuu-chah-nulth territory where long-distance travelers and traders were welcomed with a traditional feast at which they were expected to repay their hosts with news of other places. They were expected to be truthful when they reported to local chiefs stories of victory or defeat in battles witnessed in their travels; of famines survived or record harvests shared.

And when left to continue their travels or go home, they were loaded with gifts of food in the hope that the storytellers would twitter about them favourably.

In his classic book, A History of News” Mitchell Stephens tells us the Nootka chiefs were not above a little salacious storytelling every now and then. One such story involved  “a suitor who tumbled into a barrel of rainwater as he was sneaking out the window of his lover’s house.” Once twittered at a lodge campfire, the story took wings and “spread like wildfire up and down the coast.”

Today it would be proudly praised as a top story “going viral.” Readers still prefer news stories with a little sex and a dash of violence, reporters prefer writing them and publishers know what their readers prefer.

The age of twittering storytellers eventually faded as society recognized that a twice-told tale could become slightly different in its second telling and unrecognizable in its third and fourth. Some of today’s reader will remember the old campfire game where we sat in a circle our leader would whisper a sentence in an ear which would then be passed along to whispered completion. The final recipient would then stand and recite what he heard whispered and the leader would read out what had actually been said at the start of the game.

It was never the same story.

In Europe, coffee table twittering and chatter lasted for centuries before being replaced by more stable print and a vastly wider audience. Unfortunately, a wider audience has never automatically guaranteed a more honest product. Mitchell Stephens skillful autopsy of print-press, its triumphs, and its failures should be a must read for all who wish to ply the trade of journalism, snipe from the sidelines with a twittering load of misleading grapeshot – or just happily pay a weekly fee to read the inane posing as news.

“A History of News” was first published in 1988. It could be hard to find but will be worth the search if you are successful. But be warned it could be a painful journey as Stephens forces us to understand that while we lamented much of the “news content” presented in our newspapers even as they went into their continuing death spiral, it was “content” readers preferred.

In the last few lines of his book Stephens’ writes about the expanding power of huge companies building ever larger data banks. He writes : “….no matter how sophisticated news organs become, unless human beings are also re-wired, they are likely to continue to satisfy their desire to remain aware with a spicy, hastily prepared mix of the portentous and the anomolous similar to that with which they have satisfied that desire for the past few thousand years.”





The White Poppy of Remembrance

The park and the war memorial in London, England, are both postage stamp size. They stand –The Hermitage Wharf Memorial Garden and the People of London Memorial – on the south bank of the River Thames, a short walk from London’s classical Tower Bridge landmark.

The garden is just that, a small well-tended bed of flowers surrounding a circular block of stone with a dove in flight cut through the centre. There are two inscriptions. “In war resolution, in defeat defiance, in victory magnanimity, in peace goodwill” graces the circular stone on one side. On the other, there is a command: “Remember before God the people of London, 1939-1945.”

It is the lone memorial in London, the city of statues and bronze tablets marking historic happenings, to the 20,000 civilians who lost their lives in 57 nights of consecutive bombing raids – the London Blitz. On the last night of the blitz, May 10 – 11, 1941, more than 1,000 high explosive bombs smashed across the city with the heaviest concentrations in the East End and Thames dockside.

Over the course of the 57-night blitz mixed in with the heavy-duty bombs were 55 heavy oil canister firebombs and thousands of incendiary bombs. There were also 11 “blockbuster” parachute mines. A “blockbuster” would drift down and stand silently until the detonator-timer kicked in. It would destroy a full city block on explosion. The end results of firebomb explosions require no explanation.

While London was suffering its worst of the 57 nights, the historic town of Penryn, 435 kilometres west and close to the edge of Cornwall, was sleeping until one bomb from a lone aircraft fell on a row of modest houses. Today, flowers grow in Penryn’s Memorial Garden with a small tablet reading: “On this site stood homes which were destroyed during an early morning air raidwhen 18 lives were lost.” Each year the town remembers.

Details of the Penryn “raid” are hard to find but they still read out the names of the dead, including “four-year-old David Boxhall, and Percy and Ronald Pascoe, brothers four and two years old” who died with their mother and five other family members. John Rickard Rapson, 78, was a victim, as was Richard Ralph who, The Falmouth Packet newspaper reports, “had survived four years in WW1 trenches only to be killed in his own home.”

Penryn was a flea bite when compared with London or other major UK cities. And by 1945 the brutal devastation in UK cities paled when measured against the wreckage and loss of civilian lives in cities across Europe from the channel ports to Moscow.

Germany had lost as many as 500,000 civilians including 76,000 children – and their mothers.

Adding to the ranks of civilian dead were women who served as air raid wardens, in ambulance services, and as firefighters. There is a Memorial to Fire Fighters near St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is a bronze sculpture depicting a crew in action during an air raid when civilian firefighting casualties were high. Two members of the squad are female firefighters. There were many others

Last Thursday there was a letter in my local newspaper signed by a 90-year old woman who wanted people to know that on November 11 she would be attending a memorial service for the Spanish Civil War, the first democracy versus fascism war – 1936-39. She would, she wrote, be proudly wearing a white poppy.

I have never met or spoken to Alison Acker, the letter signer, but I salute her white poppy courage. The different poppy with its white petals and green centre has been around since the 1930s when a group of women, many of whom had lost husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers in WW1 decided to become advocates for peace. They would remember fallen soldiers, sailors, and airmen with a white poppy symbol of peace that would reach beyond the military and include the civilian dead.

It was not a popular movement and showed little growth over the years, but it never faded away. Many ex-service groups denounced it as unpatriotic and a betrayal of the men and women who served in the armed forces and helped keep the world and our nation safe.

The white poppy supporters denied the charges, insisted they respected and appreciated the sacrifices made but also believed that war should not be glamourized and that civilian dead deserved respect equal to that accorded the military. In the years since WW2 white poppy wearers have insisted they honour all war victims, especially the elderly and women and children who, since that conflict have been unarmed but in harm’s way once the fighting starts.

The white poppy received an unexpected boost a week ago when the 141-year-old St. John Ambulance organization changed its uniform dress code to allow its volunteers to wear the white poppy.

The Peace Pledge Union which handles white poppy distribution says it hopes to have 100,000 sold before November 11 – 10,000 more than a year ago. It sounds encouraging until measured against the war-like rhetoric hurled back and forth at the international level, and especially by our southern neighbour.

Our world leaders threaten but say what they really want is peace; and we, the people – or most of us – echo that we, too, want peace.

But not enough to wear a white poppy.

President Trump’s Final Solution?


The weather on January 6, 1864 was not unusual, but maybe just a little unexpected. Deep snow covered the hills surrounding Canyon de Chelly, and a cold wind was making things difficult for renowned Indian fighter Kit Carson. He and his 400-strong “army” had been charged with the task of clearing the canyon and the surrounding country of Navajo tribal natives.

Carson launched what would become a 16-day relentless assault on the Navajo. Every “Hogan” was burned, corrals were torn down, food supplies stored for winter were destroyed, and wells and water holes were filled with rocks and soil and rendered useless.

Then, Carson sat and waited for survivors to surrender – which most did rather than face death by starvation. Tribal histories say they realized they could not survive the winter. “They had no livestock, their homes were in ashes, and crops destroyed, children clad in rags and afraid to light fires because they would attract Carson’s attention.”

When they surrendered at Fort Defiance and Fort Wingate, they were, to their surprise, welcomed with gifts of food and blankets and roofs to sleep under. And, they were told that more food and blankets and permanent homes awaited them at a place called Bosque Redondo near the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico. The military had an outpost there called Fort Sumner.

There was what Kit Carson and the army regarded as a minor problem: how to get them from Fort Defiance to Fort Sumner. Some tribal stories handed down verbally estimate the final number of Navajo assembled by Carson in what is now Southeast Arizona in March 1864 was “around 8,500 men, women and children.” Whatever the total, on the day they moved, they had no idea their new home was close to 500 kilometers away – and they had to walk every kilometer. At least, those who survived what the Navajo still call “the Long Walk” – would have walked every kilometer.

Tribal histories say: “Soon the Navajo’s moccasins fell apart and their blankets turned to rags…… (many) became sick from different foods the soldiers gave them. They didn’t know how to use flour or coffee beans. They mixed the flour with water and drank it and the coffee beans they boiled in stews … Old people and young people fell along the trail. If they did not get up the soldiers either shot them or left them to freeze to death.”

Before reaching the Pecos River, they had to cross the Rio Grande and many drowned there before the military guard allowed the walkers to make a few primitive rafts. The number of deaths on The Long Walk varies between 3,000 and 5,000 – depending on who is telling the story.

The Navajo remained incarcerated in Fort Sumner for close to four years when a new treaty was negotiated, and the survivors rejoined a small band of Navajo warriors who had avoided capture and refused to surrender. The Navajo had survived.

The Fort Sumner concentration camp site is, by all accounts, better visited today than it was 25 years ago when I took my youngest son to see this rare historic site and learn a little harsh American history. He listened to my Navajo story, but couldn’t visualize a concentration camp on what looked like an empty field with a fence around it. He drifted off to Fort Sumner’s small cemetery for another look at a gravestone claiming to mark the last resting place of Henry McCarty or William Bonney – better known as “Billy the Kid.”

Billy the Kid was a 21-year-old murderer with eight victims to his name when Sheriff Pat Garrett shot and killed him at Fort Sumner in 1881 – and remains in the American psyche (and that of 10-year-old boys) a far more interesting historical happening at the old outpost than The Long Walk of the Navajos.

I think I owe readers a reason for reviving The Long Walk story. It was just curiosity. I got to wondering: How would Commander in Chief USA President Trump resolve his current troublesome problem of refugee “invaders” seeking food and a place to call home?

Late last Thursday afternoon via television he told me. At the first sign of trouble if/when the refugees reach the Mexico – USA border he would “use the rifle” to halt the cavalcade. And that brutal promised order from the Commander in Chief of the US Armed forces should be all his most ardent supporters need to trigger an already overdue farewell.


Return to the Dark Ages?

It is 15 years now since I revived a story written in the 1970s by the then-great San Francisco columnist Art Hoppe. I’m repeating it today because I think it even more pertinent, its conclusion more imminent than when Hoppe first wrote in the ‘70s and I rode on his pen in 2003.

I am aware the ancient Greek poet Homer once warned —  “And what so tedious as a twice-told tale”, but I also believe exceptions sometimes prove the rule.

Hoppe’s story was about a new country of a few thousand people united in a desire for freedom, justice, and equality. The people, he wrote, were “proud, independent, self-reliant and generally very prosperous.” And, above all else, “… they had faith. They had faith in their religion, their leaders, their country, themselves.”

The people of Hoppe’s new nation were also ambitious and determined to expand. To do that they had to subjugate what they regarded as heathen tribal peoples occupying the land the new nation needed to safeguard its extending borders. “First, they conquered the savage tribes that hemmed them in,” Hoppe wrote. “Then they fought wars on land and sea with foreign powers to the east and west and south. They won almost all the battles they fought, and triumphed in almost all of their wars.”

Eventually, the young nation took its place on the world stage, and not just any place. It became the “richest, mightiest nation in the whole world – admired, respected, envied and feared by one and all.”

The leaders of the nation and the people themselves were sometimes generous to a fault. And, together they seemed to have the earnest desire to share their wealth and their way of life with the rest of the world. They wanted, wrote Hoppe, to guarantee universal peace “and make everyone as prosperous and decent and civilized” as they themselves were.

The example set by this still growing nation was inspiring. It showed the world how to build good roads and super-highways; it taught the necessity of basic hygiene, of the need for cleanliness and sanitation. It led the world in transportation and “free speech.”

“And for a while”, wrote Hoppe “it even kept the peace.”

But power brought its own problems. “Being the mightiest nation meant that its leader was the mightiest man in the world. And, naturally, he acted like it. He surrounded himself with a palace guard of men chosen solely for their personal loyalty. He usurped the power of the Senate, signing treaties, waging wars and spending public funds as he saw fit.”

These problems were, suggested Hoppe 50 years ago, the first signs of decay. There were others.

“When little countries far away rebelled, (the leader) sent troops without so much as a by-your-leave. And the mightiest nation became engaged in a series of long, costly, inconclusive campaigns in faraway lands. Many young men refused to fight for their country, and in some places the mightiest nation employed mercenaries to do battle for its causes.”

On the home front, wrote Hoppe, “because it was the mightiest nation it worshipped wealth and the things wealth bought … the rich got richer, the poor grew poorer … many were idle and on welfare and lacked appropriate medical care.” To keep grumbles at a minimum the masses were offered entertainment by highly paid athletes, and at certain times of the year were urged to forget their day-to-day problems with festivals and circuses.

But the “entertainments” and the eat-drink-and-be-merry philosophy of a totally materialistic society brought its own problems. “Many citizens lost faith in their old religion and turned to mysticism,” wrote Hoppe. Dress and good grooming standards changed. Young people rejected clean clothes for the ragged look, long hair and sandals; and the most intimate of sexual relations became acceptable in public display. “Bare-breasted dancers, lewd shows and sex orgies (became) increasingly common. And the (national) currency was debased again and again to meet mounting debts.”

With its armies spread around the world, there were the beginnings of troubles at home as lack of respect for their leaders and their neighbours infiltrated daily life. “Citizens came to learn their leaders were corrupt – that the respected palace guard was selling favours to the rich … among the people … (there was) fear and distrust … So it was that the people lost faith. They lost faith in their leaders, their currency, … their postal system, their armies, their religion, their country and, eventually, themselves.

“And thus, in 476 A.D., Rome fell to the barbarians, and the Dark Ages settled over western civilization.

It was George Santayana who warned those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. We can only hope today’s great powers – all of them – remember that truth before they blunder today’s world back into the darkness of an age best confined to history books.

Don’t be Afraid to Listen to the Silence

It was in the 1860s that Henry David Thoreau, one of America’s great philosophers, wrote: “I have three chairs in my home; one for solitude, two for friendship and all three for society.”

Thoreau (1817-1862), writing about the simple life in the country, stressed the enjoyable times when one or two friends dropped in for a serious talk about weighty matters, and the more raucous times when his modest living quarters were jammed with neighbours for more boisterous and difficult-to-follow debate. He enjoyed them all but none so much as when “the solitude chair” sat empty and Thoreau had the luxury, and the wisdom, of being able to listen to its silence and learn.

It would be a hundred or so years after his death in 1862 that in the 1960s a couple of young folk singers would put a different spin on Thoreau’s praise for periods of solitude, where men and women could find the silence “companionable,” challenging and, if listened to, strengthening for society.

Paul Simon was 17 when he penned the lyrics of The Sounds of Silence, and with his partner, Art Garfunkel accused the world of living in a zone of silence and being too cowardly to respond to the ominous warnings it clearly conveyed. It was a timely call to conscience 50 years ago and is even more timely today.

Maybe you have forgotten some of the words: “Hello darkness, my old friend I’ve come to talk with you again/Because a vision softly creeping/Left its seeds when I was sleeping/And the vision that was planted in my brain/Still remains/Within the sound of silence.”

He sang of his restless dream as he walked the cobbled streets of any town and every town until his eyes “were stabbed by the flash of neon light that split the night and touched the sound of silence.”

And then the great truth we witness every day; true when first spoken but more chilling now than ever they were: “And in the naked light I saw/Ten thousand people, maybe more/People talking without speaking/People hearing without listening/People writing songs that voices never share/And no one dare/Disturb the sounds of silence.”

And no one dare! Can that be true down south where a President appears to be running amok and beyond the control of the powerful men who are supposed leaders of the Republican Party?

“Fools said I, you do not know/Silence like a cancer grows/ Hear my words that I may teach you/Take my arms that I might reach you …“But my words, like silent raindrops fell/And echoed in the wells of silence.”

But I don’t despair. There must always be hope. Hope that someday, the corrupt silence that now binds so many world leaders to the pursuit of riches and power will end. Hope that the silence coveted by Thoreau can become the norm for our political leaders and ourselves.

It is 600 years or so since Blaise Pascal, a physics, math and geometry genius, said: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” He argued that we fear the silence, preferring entertaining distractions to thoughtful considerations and the stirring of conscience a session with “the solitude chair” could bring.

His challenge; Thoreau’s challenge; Paul Simon’s challenge; Our challenge: To listen to and in the silence – and not be afraid.




The Rough Road of Mental Health Care

Dates to remember:

1872 – British Columbia opened its first Asylum for the Insane in Victoria. Built on the Songhees reserve, it held 16 patients admitted for “disorders, nervous trouble, masturbation, injury to the head, intemperance, fright, (or) ‘unknown.’”

1878 – With the Victoria facility overcrowded and shadowed by scandal, the BC Provincial Lunatic Asylum was built on 100 acres of Crown land in New Westminster at a cost of $24,000. It eventually became known as Woodlands Hospital for the Insane and later, the BC Public Hospital for the Insane.

1892 – Woodlands Asylum connected to city water mains. Resident population – 135.

1896 – Clean bathing water available for each patient. Resident population – 171.

1930 – Patient per capita costs estimated at 72 cents per day. Resident population – 500+.

1940 – BC’s Mental Hospital Act amended to delete all mention of “lunatic” and “insane.”

1961 -Resident population  1,436 the highest recorded.

1982 – Government announces Woodlands to be closed. Resident population – approximately 900.

1999 – Government relinquishes any interest in the property for major health purposes, and the site reverts to surplus status

2003 – Government apologizes to former residents of Woodlands for any mental, physical or sexual abuse. Many hearings, inquiries, and a class action lawsuit follow over the rates and times of compensation until:

October 8, 2018 – British Columbia’s Minister of Health, Adrian Dix, announced: “This year, the BC government moved to finally do the right thing to extend compensation to Woodlands’ survivors denied redress for the abuse they suffered.”

Jane Dyson, former executive director of Disability Allowance BC, said she was thrilled that “after all these years of being told no, our Province is saying yes to the survivors of Woodlands.”

Time for rejoicing indeed – but with a great wave of sadness for the early victims of what our ancestors thought appropriate treatment for those who were mentally frail, and who died before public conscience could demand humanity and reform.

An example from Ken Scott’s research on the BC Public Hospital for the Insane: “In nineteenth-century British Columbia, both the medical community and the local public believed strongly in the importance of separating insane patients by gender. In 1869, two middle-class sisters, both school teachers, had been deemed insane. These ‘insane ladies’ were noisy and physically violent, and one refused to wear any clothing. They were kept locked in a bare brick cell in the Victoria city jail with only male staff supervision.

This challenge to Victorian respectability drew public attention to the severe lack of local psychiatric facilities. Eventually, a third sister, who was of sound mind, was permitted full-time access to the jail to care for her siblings. She wrote to the newspaper appealing to public respectability and arguing for gender-segregated facilities for the insane: ‘Men should be appointed to look after men – women to look after women. The cells for men and women should be in separate parts of the building … Men and women of Victoria, let us not rest until the evil is remedied.”

It took a while but “the evil was remedied” as were many others with the passage of time and flutters of conscience. But the road for mental health patients was rough as the records of “hitting, kicking, grabbing by the hair and dragging, very cold showers and very hot baths resulting in burns to the skin, extended isolation, wearing shackles and belt leash” demonstrate.

More disturbing than Scott’s grim picture of humanity at its worst are the comments from former Ombudsperson Dulcie McCallum who conducted an independent review of Woodlands’ care. She was careful to stress that while many Woodlands workers were honourable and dedicated, “there was a code of silence among many employees including those who were not engaged in abusive behaviour.”

The good guys disapproved of what some colleagues were doing, but balked at being a whistleblower and branded as “a snitch.”

We have come a long way since 1872 but it seems to me we all have a bit of that reluctance in our make-up which suggests that, while we can rejoice at the forward progress made as a society, we still have some old and nasty shibboleths to shake off before we get it right.


In Some Corner of a Foreign Field

It was on February 22, 1779, that Captain Charles Clerke of His Majesty’s Sloop Discovery committed the remains of fellow Captain James Cook of HMS Resolution “to the deep with all the attention and honour we could possibly pay in this part of the world.”

Ships Master Thomas Edgar tells us that, at five in the afternoon, Cook’s Resolution and the Discovery “hoisted ensigns and pendants half staff up and crossed over yards. At three quarters past the hour, Resolution tolled her bell and fired 10 four pounders, half minute guns, and committed the bones of Captain Cook to the deep.”

Fifteen minutes later, both ships “at 6 p.m. squared yards.” Most of the officers on board the two vessels presumed they would be setting course for home – that the third great voyage of Cook, the one that put the West and Northwest Coast of Canada and much of the Pacific Ocean on the maps of the world, was over after three years of discovering and charting new lands.

The officers were wrong. Captain Clerke, who had assumed command of the expedition and the Resolution after the assassination of Cook in Hawaii, said he understood the anxiety to get home after so long at sea, but felt it would be a betrayal of Cook’s plan to search northern waters once more for a dreamed-of northwest passage before heading home. He was determined, he said, to complete Cook’s plan even though he was seriously ill. His two ship fleet sailed north.

On August 17, 1779, while sailing the Bering Strait off the coast of Kamchatka just five days before his death, Clerke sat down to write a simple will and last testament. He was 38, ravaged by tuberculosis; reduced, according to his shipmates’ diaries, “to almost an absolute skeleton” of the man who had sailed them from the far side of the world.

He must have been feeling a million miles from home when he wrote: “In the name of God, Amen, I Charles Clerke (Captain) of His Majesty’s Sloop Resolution, having been long in a state of straighten (cct) and not knowing how soon it may please God to remove me from this life, I hereby make this my last will and testament that all my just and lawful debts be paid and which are as follows … ” The list was not long and basically contained the same beneficiaries as his first will, a will made by most early sailors before they launched on voyages of discovery expected to last for years, and from which there was always the danger of no return.

One bequest is a testimony to Captain Clerke’s character. “To my dear brother and friend Sir John Clerke, Captain in His Majesties (cct) Navy, 10 Guineas.” A generous gesture considering he’d once done hard time for brother John. Another brother didn’t fare nearly as well: “To my brother Joseph Clerke of Ipswich, Attorney at Law, one Guinea.”

No reasons were given for the difference, but, history tells us when Charles Clerke was posted to Captaincy of Resolution, he was in debtors’ prison serving time for brother John who had failed to pay back a loan. Charles had been his guarantor. Some historians suggest lawyer-brother Joseph, with only a guinea from his brother’s estate, had been lacking in family loyalty at the time and that it had taken intervention by friends who paid the bills to gain release for Charles in time for him to race to the coast and take command of HMS Discovery.

Unfortunately, he carried with him the early seeds of tuberculosis picked up during his grim incarceration in the notorious Fleet Prison. That wasn’t known when he finally sailed with Captain Cook who was in command of HMS Resolution and overall commander of the expedition.

It would be October 4, 1780, before the two ships returned to the Royal Navy yards in Deptford, England – four years, three months, and two days after they left. Both ships had lost their captain.

Cook’s remains had been “committed to the deep” off Hawaii; Clerke had sailed north to die and be buried – as requested – on land.

His grave was originally near the village of Paratunka on the Kamchatka Peninsula. In 1918, his remains were moved to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. A Royal Navy memorial stone and a Russian tribute remind the world that: “This officer made several trips to the opening of new lands.” In his short life span, Clerke had circumnavigated the globe twice and came close to completing a third.

The home of his birth, Brook Farm, Braintree Road, Wethersfield, Essex, England, still exists today as a bed and breakfast establishment of high repute. However, it makes only modest reference to its most famous resident who joined the Royal Navy at age 13, and 10 years later sailed on HMS Dolphin on his first circumnavigation – an unsuccessful search for Terra Australis Incognito – Australia.

In Wethersfield, there’s a wall plate in St Mary’s Church listing Clerke family accomplishments and, almost in passing, the contributions of Charles. In New Zealand’s Government House there hangs a portrait painting of Clerke with a Maori chief. But that’s about all we have as memorial tributes.

Captain Cook continues to command centre stage for Northwest and Pacific discoveries – and no one can deny the wonders of his perseverance, his discoveries, charts, diaries, maps, and descriptions of worlds once unknown. He is remembered each year and rightly praised for great achievements on the anniversary of his brutal death on a Hawaiian beach on the 14th of February, 1779.

I try to remember Captain Clerke from time to time. He’s not as high as Cook on the honour and memorial charts, although he did two circumnavigations of the globe and was second in command of the third when he died so far from home. I remember him and his lonely grave in a remote corner of Siberia with its bleak Royal Navy reminder that Captain Clerke also made “several trips” to open up new lands.

Rupert Brook penned better and longer lasting words than I for those who, worthy of higher honours, die and lie in far away and oft-forgotten places.

“If I should die, think only this of me;

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England. There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam.

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.”


I think Captain Clerke, a quiet hero, would be happy to be so remembered in a small patch of Russian soil  “for  ever England.”