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“For Whom The Bell Tolls”

”It must 50 years since I talked to George Clutesi in his neat cottage home on Somass River Road in Port Alberni. I was a newcomer in the Albernis having been transferred to the Valley to open a news bureau for the Nanaimo Free Press.

The newspaper had ambitions way back then to spread its new daily wings beyond the Hub City. The Free Press no longer exists; its expansion plans in the Alberni Valley and later Courtenay wrecked by the Internet and other electronic marvels.

My new home with four children and a fifth due in a few months was on Stirling Arm on Sproat Lake not far from the old and famous water bombers, which provided wonderful entertainment during pre-fire season practice and during high fire years when local forest fires kept the flyers busy.

It was a great spot for raising children and a short drive to and from work, shops and schools, and George Clutesi – artist, actor, movie star, and a treasure chest on Tseshaht Nation’s legends and history – was a new-in-town-newsman’s dream. I was not a frequent visitor nor could I ever boast I was a close friend. I was one of those annoying acquaintances who dropped in unannounced occasionally, made myself at home – and was always made to feel welcome.

I’ve been calling George to mind in recent days as I have ploughed through the thousands of pages comprising the report of Truth and Reconciliation Commission, published a couple of years ago.

It contains a lot of George Clutesi’s thinking, although he died in 1988, sometime before the Commission report was published and morphed into the permanent National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

One of the themes echoing Clutesi thinking has to do with revenge for the evils perpetrated (and placidly accepted as valid by the people) imposed by white governors as they tried to whip the aboriginal tribes of Canada into sub-servant replicas of their proclaimed masters’ society.

I asked George why young aboriginal Canadians were so hang-dog submissive; why they tended to step to one side on a downtown sidewalk to give white folk clear passage. He politely saidI was misreading their feeling. He said it was sometimes a serious challenge holding the young bloods in check. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report echoes that warning with the oft-repeated theme that its emphasis is, and will always be, on reconciliation, not revenge.

And I’m wondering if the majority of white people feel that way. John Donne (1572-1631) once wrote: “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Next time you hear them, ringing “from sea to shining sea” in Canada, remember the answer.

Reconciliation Is Never Easy

“Reconciliation is not an aboriginal problem; it is a Canadian one. Virtually all aspects of Canadian society may need to be reconsidered.”

The words are part of the introduction to the voluminous report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission published in December 2015 and still producing shudders of embarrassment in Canada as details of years of practiced cultural genocide continue to be revealed.


The latest shock wave came a few days ago when it was revealed that the graves of 215 children have been located on the grounds of the former Kamloops Residential School for indigenous children.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, made public after several years of cross-country study and thousands of interviews with former students arbitrarily confined to the schools, defined cultural genocide as: “The destruction of those structures and practices that allow a group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.

“IN ITS DEALING WITH ABORIGINAL PEOPLE, CANADA DID ALL OF THESE THINGS.” (The emphasis is mine)

During many months of listening to testimony from more than 6,000 witnesses the Commission said it was often difficult to believe that what they were hearing had happened “in a country such as Canada which has so long prided itself on being a bastion of democracy, peace and kindness …”

TypicaI of hard-to-believe-but-horribly-true was the story I wrote in June 2014 about an inquest into the deaths of four children from Lejac Indian Residential School back in 1937.

The four lads were runaways who had decided New Year’s Day would be a good time to be home with their family on the Nautley Indian Reserve some six or seven miles away. It was nine o’clock in the evening of January 1 before the boys – Alan Wylie, 9, Andrew Paul and Justa Maurice, 8, and John Michael Jack, 7, were reported missing. The temperature was below zero and falling.

At the subsequent inquest into their deaths BC Police Constable H.J. Jennings testified he had found the four bodies roughly three quarters of mile short of the Nautley Reserve where their families lived. He estimated they had been walking for about six hours before they fell and froze to death.

Const. Jennings testified they were wearing “underwear, blue denim shirts, overalls, heavy woolen socks, low rubbers, no hats. One boy had lost a rubber and a sock. His foot was bare. Three were lying huddled together; the fourth, some 80-feet away, died alone.”

But the most telling and disturbing testimony came from School Principal Father Patrick MacGrath who, according to press reports, “expressed surprise that the four dead children had fled the school unprepared” and added that “they could and should have helped themselves to more clothing.”

Father MacGrath was also reported to have filed a signed a statement saying: “Ninety per cent of our children are present at the school against their parents’ wishes and are not disciplined by their parents when they do run away so that it is hard (for us) to prevent them.”

The coroner’s jury was not impressed. It found: “More definite action by the school authorities might or should have been taken … and that more cooperation between authorities and parents would lessen the incidence of runaways.” It also decried the use of excessive corporal punishment and strongly recommended there would better understanding between disciplinarians and pupils “if the latter were English speaking.”

The Inquest had revealed that the teaching staff strictly enforced the “no native language rule” for students even though they had only limited knowledge of English.

Truth and reconciliation still lie just beyond our reach. But, not without hope.

Facts Versus Free Comment

“Comment is free, but facts are sacred” was a statement of faith, a first commandment of commitment for any aspiring journalist seeking a coveted reporter’s position with the Manchester Guardian in 1921.

The edict came from the pen of Editor C.P. Scott, remembered by Alan Rusbridger in his book “News – And How to Read It.” Rusbridger served as Editor-in-Chief of Guardian News and Media from 1985 to 2015.

The Manchester Guardian is now just The Guardian, celebrating 200 years of publication and standing tall in today’s turbulent ocean of “news” swamping us in digital print. Rusbridger and the Guardian has thrown readers a lifeline. Grabbing it will not guarantee salvation from the overwhelming flood of waste washing over us threatening to choke sound reasoning – but it might help us tread water until common sense proves a lifeboat.

I am not a newcomer to the Wailing Wall where I can find excuses for my own failures to be more careful with what I write. Long time readers may remember my several pieces over the years on Bob Considine, who’s framed Newspaperman’s Prayer hung at eye level for many years over my Legislature Press Gallery desk until it was stolen. 

I can still remember the opening words: “Dear God, may I be fair. Circumstances and dumb luck have placed in my thumby paws a degree of authority which I may not fully comprehend. Let me not profane it … Give me the drive that will make me check and countercheck the facts. Guide me when, lost for want of a rudder or lead, I stumble through the jungle of speculation …”

I had hoped Rusbridger would give me more of the same home spun thoughts on how to handle the never-ending need for vigilance by reporters, especially personal opinion scribblers, to strive for Scott’s reverence for accuracy, honesty and fairness when dealing with facts. It isn’t always easy.

Rusbridger tells us “Facts are powerful. A single fact can make a story. A single fact can change society.” There are basic facts – a name, an age, an address – that are for the most part indisputable. Photographs, if verified, can confirm a claimed fact, or demolish the claim. He cites, for example, the disputed size of the crowd at President Donald Trump’s January 2017 inaugural. Aerial photographs were proof positive that the crowd was thousands short of the Trump claim.

The President left one of his army of publicists to handle the problem and Kellyanne Conway did so with a flourish. The President and the press were both right – they were just dealing with “alternative facts.”

Rusbridger quite properly noted there are no alternative facts. Just as TV mythology mistakenly records that Dragnet’s Sergeant Joe Friday used say: “Just the facts, ma’am.”

I hesitantly recommend “News – And How to Read It” to anyone interested in an accurate, factual picture of what’s going on in our swirling media world today. There are interesting looks at interesting inside stories and occasionally, in chapters like Caveat Emptor, the blunt recommendation from Don Gilmour, journalist turned academic, to “never take it for granted that what we read, see or hear from media sources of any kind is trustworthy.” This caution applies to every scrap of information that comes our way whether from traditional news organizations, blogs, on-line videos, Facebook updates or any other source.

I prefer Considine: “Make me use my legs and eyes the better to track down and see the truth. Deafen me to the Lorelei song of rootless hearsay, rumour and the gossip of town loafers …”

Amen.

A Passport to New Normal

So, what’s all the excitement on the web about Canada introducing a vaccination passport to citizens who have now received two COVID-19 vaccination shots?

I’m asking because I thought I already had a wallet-sized card listing James Hume, born December 27, 1923, as the official recipient on January 21, 2021 of a shot of Moderna vaccine with my second shot recorded May 7, 2021.

A plain-looking card not all gussied up like my proud blue Canada passport with its pages of impressive foreign travel stamps, now lying COVID-neutered in my safety deposit box. Plain looking it may be but its printed message “this is a permanent immunization record  – keep in a save place” has a nice ring.

I’m keeping it safe along with my medical care card which I assume lists all my frailties, and my BC Identity Card which is clearly marked in capitals THIS IS NOT A DRIVER’S LICENCE – and in minuscule font “this card remains the property of the issuing agency and must be surrendered upon request.”

And if you had to reach for a magnifying glass to read the previous sentence, don’t worry, so did I.

Now, back to my opening paragraph on the current debate on (a) the need for the establishment of an international vaccine passport; (b) the threat such a document could be to our cherished, but often garbled, interpretation of human rights.

BC Premier John Horgan says he supports the international passport idea. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has his doubts saying it raises “serious questions of equality.”

From a layman’s view, it seems a simple matter: If the double dose of the vaccine stops its spread, expedite the international passport idea and let’s get the world moving again. We already appear to have the basic blocks in place to build on. 

If we still have some way to go before we can truly make the Victory claim, let’s get on with it. Just wishing it was all over won’t make it so.

Living Longer and Thankfully Safer

When I was born in England in 1923 the estimated life expectancy for a newborn male was, with a bit of luck, around 40 years. And every decade or so from 1923 to the present, my “life expectancy ratio” forecast got a boost. In other words, the longer I lived the longer I could expect to live.

By 2020, the actuaries who keep track of these things were assuring us that we could enjoy 81 years … not exactly headline news for this wordsmith still blogging in 2020 in his 97th year. I remain well aware of my good fortune to have been blessed with genes that have now carried me well beyond two “best before” dates, first when I waved goodbye to my 40th birthday in1963 and realized I was indeed getting “old;” and now, remembering that next December I’ll be 98 and wondering who – or what – is turning the hands of the clock so fast.

I become easily irritated these days when I read the sweeping claims of the 2021 anti-vaccine, anti-face mask doomsayers who see nothing but evil in the research and dedication of medical doctors and scientists and armies of health care workers who, over the centuries, have brought the world protection against plagues that once ravaged the world unchecked.

Recently, Facebook and Twitter – unfettered platforms for anti-vaxxers’ outrageous objections to the vaccine program – have promised tighter checks on clients using their services to spread misinformation. In their reluctant concession, they have recognized that unfounded statements and false claims have been disseminated worldwide in the guise of free speech.

I reach back a little before Facebook and Twitter to my well-thumbed copy of Charles Panati’s (1989) Panati’s Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody for answers. It’s a minor classic in that while Panati is dealing with plagues and disasters, he does so with an occasional touch of humour that makes the horror of many catastrophic events easier to face and fight.

When reporting on New York’s “Typhoid” Mary Mallon, 68, who sent to their graves or infected with typhoid an unknown number of victims in the 1870s, he writes: “Medically she was that immunological marvel: a person who carried a deadly agent without ever becoming sick, but who can kill others with a kiss or a meringue pie.”

Much of Panati’s reporting should fascinate today’s truth seekers as they read about Dr. Edward Jenner, the English country doctor who developed the vaccine and method of vaccination that led to the end of smallpox as a global pestilence – a brutal killer of millions until 1977 when it was finally defeated.

Like today’s vaccination attack on COVID-19, Dr. Jenner’s vaccine procedure faced a daunting public fear campaign and he was much maligned until smallpox was finally listed as defeated. Readers who have a genuine fear of vaccines might profit from an hour or two with Panati and pray that the men and women he portrays, facing and defeating centuries of health fear-mongering, never give up the fight.

Stay Alert For Poisoned Cobwebs!

It has long been a fact that the first casualty of any war is the truth. So, it should be no surprise that the global conflict now threatening the future of every nation on Planet Earth is awash with fear and uncertainty.

For sure, we are in a war between science and what we have come to know as COVID-19, a killer germ that broke loose from wherever it was confined a little more than a year ago and has since been on a worldwide, largely uncontrolled, rampage.

It took a few weeks for humanity to awaken to the danger of the new disease and for the world of science to move into high gear in the search for an antidote or cure. Then, in record-breaking time, several vaccines were being tested, refined, retested and finally approved for mass production and distribution.

Around the world, governments created centres to administer the vaccines. Daily bulletins began to appear recording the number of citizens vaccinated, the number successfully returning to work after vaccination, the number kept in routine care or “intensive care,” and the frightening number of deaths. Those deaths leaped from hundreds to thousands then worldwide to millions dying in hospital wards overflowing with the stricken.

And, the rumours and the whispers began. Were all the vaccines safe? Which one is the best? Can the giant pharmaceutical firms be trusted? Are the big pharmas just in it for the money because they don’t care about the cure?

Our local health authorities have done their best to address these rumours and conspiracy theories, but sometimes it has been a losing battle. People determined to think negatively will not be persuaded by science. I don’t envy Dr. Bonnie Henry her job of trying to persuade anti-vaxxers they are wrong.

It will be little comfort to remind her and her colleagues that in England in 1941, during the unpleasantness of World War Two, then-prime minister Winston Churchill permitted his government’s Ministry of Information to establish two in-house bureaus: The Anti Lies Bureau was charged with tracking and responding to German propaganda; and, the Anti-Rumors Bureau was assigned to track down uninformed local gossip.

I hesitate to mention one 1941 rumour making the rounds in British pubs lest 2021 anti-vaxxers dust it off and add it to their reasons for abstaining: The false rumble making the rounds was that German aircraft were dropping poison cobwebs on the British population.

Churchill’s sleuths confirmed the rumour once had life but was “rapidly dying.”

The last few days unfolded as planned and I got my second vaccine shot on Friday, May 7. Didn’t spot any cobwebs. But I’ll spend the next few days wondering if the light I now see at the end of the tunnel is one of promise – or a freight train heading my way.

At last -The long Sought Money Tree?

Never having been much of a whiz-kid when it comes to math or numbers adding up to more than 10, I hesitate to venture into the realm of high finance and talk about big money.

I mean big as in more than trillions of dollars. Remember – should you feel tempted to follow my line of thought – I’m the guy who needs a kindly and very understanding accountant to help me fill in my name and address on my annual income tax return.

So, here is my problem: Flushed into the spotlight by proudly repeated announcements, our federal Liberal government has discovered another trillion dollars – or two – in a dark and dusty corner of the Treasury to bind the grievous wounds being wrought by COVID-19.

Then, even as we try to imagine what a trillion dollars would look like stacked in never-ending piles of Loonies teetering in the COVID cyclone, our provincial government bounces onto centre stage to show us what real spending looks like.

On the West Coast, we still cling to the NEW Democratic Party’s hope that the constant repetition of NEW will make it so. The Liberal Party is similar. The repeated mantra would convince us that to be LIBERAL means you are automatically kind and caring.  NEW and LIBERAL – on the big stage of Canadian politics – have become frayed over time.

But I’m getting a little carried away here, complaining when I suppose I should just be thankful that we have people running things for us –

provincially and federally – who know where to put their hands on trillions, or even larger bundles, of ready cash to buy what we need.

Then, I stir in my comfortable pew, and I am disturbed wondering why for decades, Canada has been seeking solutions to the problem of homelessness and the myriad of mental health problems that flow in its wake.

Has the money been there, saved but held in reserve for more deserving causes than homelessness and failing mental health? Will the ever rising tide of the homeless ever benefit from such easy access to “money tree” benefits or decades from now will governments’ (that’s “we, the people”)At Last still be staking them to gussied-up old motel rooms and declaring the homeless problem solved.

Just asking. As always, your views will be welcomed. Be polite.

The First Clean Hands

When Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, a 19th century medical doctor, published his research on the cause of high death rates in the maternity ward of a Vienna hospital it was rejected by his peers.

For decades the most knowledgeable men of medicine had held the belief that disease, when it broke out beyond normal boundaries into epidemic and pandemic proportions, was airborne.

Their belief seemed well-founded. Sewage disposal wasn’t even a dream of the future and garbage dumps were anywhere in a village or growing city. Anywhere close at hand – including residential streets.

In the mid-1800s in Victoria, BC – now a city of gardens and scenic beauties – septic tanks drained body waste away from stately homes and into open ditches where it hopefully seeped away; and the main garbage dump was in the now picturesque Inner Harbour where the stately Empress Hotel stands today.

The combined odours were so evilly toxic that nearby church services were sometimes abbreviated or cancelled.

Vienna – and anywhere else in the world where populations were growing faster than people could handle change – the belief was firm in the minds of the men of medicine that any air that smelled so bad must be the cause of annual waves of infection that swept away thousands. 

So, when Dr. Semmelweis announced his findings that the 13 to 18 per cent death rate among new mothers and their newborn babies was caused by physicians who, having recently performed post-mortems on infected cadavers, had carried the deadly germs to mother and child, he was ridiculed, not believed.

His proposed solution that starting immediately all doctors wash their hands and scrub them clean before going near a mother and newborn baby were thought to be a scare tactic and ridiculous.

So, the good doctors of central Europe didn’t listen. Not for a while anyway. It was some months after his first warnings and appeals for cleanliness that it was grudgingly noted the maternal mortality rate had dropped to one or two per cent from an 18 per cent high. Grudgingly, the medical fraternity was at least, and at last, paying attention.

Unfortunately, Semmelweis was dead before he could savour his triumph. He was beset with ill health in his final years, some say created by critical pressure when he first advanced his findings. Others say it was public pressure with a touch of racism because of his Jewish lineage that brought on a mental breakdown that resulted in him being declared insane and confined to an asylum in 1865 and where he died at 47.

Years later, after his theories about the spread of germs and the use of antiseptics were implemented as required health care practice, he was revered in the world of medicine.

Last week, I brought readers part of the story of Dr. John Snow – another maternity specialist of basically the same era as Dr. Semmelweis – who experienced a similar rejection of his findings that a killer cholera plague in London could be traced to a single source – “the Broad Street pump” in Soho.

He, too, was derided and attacked from the pulpit by the Reverend Henry Whitehead who challenged Snow’s claim that the Broad Street pump was the sole source of the cholera scourge. “Not so,” shouted Whitehead, “the outbreak was caused not by tainted water, but by God’s intervention.”

To his credit, he did admit later that maybe Snow got it right on cholera as did Semmelweis on the mystery of “childbed fever” half a world away.

Both deserve their posthumous honours and deserved remembrance.And thank you to readers who jogged my memory on Dr.Semmelweis

Stay on Course; Believe the Science

We have lived through worse times.Through times when death counts were in the tens of thousands and the medical profession and advanced community of scientists of the day dismissed as fable a lone medical doctor’s claim that contaminated drinking water was the killer.

All a long time ago, you will hasten to say. We have long left behind bizarre challenges to medical treatments with proven track records against diseases which once contracted were fatal.

We have advanced beyond those primitive times haven’t we? I mean if our leading minds in science and medical research assure us that after extensive research and testing a new drug can halt and end fatal invasions of human bodies, we believe and welcome them.

Don’t we? Surely we have progressed from the day in 1848 when a British obstetrician named John Snow advanced his belief that that cholera, the deadliest disease in the world he lived in, had its origin in drinking water.

The medical world in general scoffed at Snow’s published theory holding fast to its long held belief that cholera was airborne and inhaled from the “miasma in the atmosphere.” All major cities functioned without running water and modern sewage disposal. “Miasma” was an ever present presence; just something “nasty” in the air people learned to live – or die with.

It was 1854 before Dr.Snow began to win converts and the medical profession and science world listened. Readers can follow his trail from first stirring of belief to full discovery and vindication with a search for  – John Snow and the Broad Street Pump the story of a dedicated medic on whose foundations our public health system is built on.

In quick order a few days ago Dr.John Snow’s 2021 public health replacements issued two major statements.One was an updated report on the death toll “of the thousands of people who have lost their lives in B.C. due to a toxic illicit drug supply….”

While patiently waiting for Dr.Bonnie Henry’s disciplined attempts to first halt the COVID 19 invasion then send it packing – as I believe she and her team will before summer ends – we  must look again at the last four words in the preceeding paragraph.

Dr. Richard Stanwick, a familiar Island Health officer for Island Health, used the best read page in Victoria’s Times-Colonist (letters to the editor) to carefully detail what he and his team were fighting: “Despite significant advances and ground breaking efforts ….there is still more work to be done to address the illicit drug poisoning crisis. Addiction is a chronic, relapsing condition often rooted from childhood trauma…….”

Dr.Stanwick’s appeal was to the government to move solution of the “death by poisoned drugs” problem a few rungs up the “priority ladder’. He asked reader’s of the editor’s mail – and anyone who should perchance stumble across my thoughts while wandering the Internet to: “As members of your community, as local leaders, as neighbours, as family and friends, to create space for respectful dialogue around substance abuse….We all need connection, compassion and dignity.”

I add a little Shakespeare :  “The quality of mercy is not strain’d/ It droppeth as the gentle  rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath/It is twice bless’d: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes….”

Public Health Defenders

So, you’re getting a little tired of these COVID-19 restrictions? Can’t go where you want, when you want and, most importantly, with whom you want? Life is hard, dressing up as an amateur bank robber just to pick up a litre of milk – or something more substantial to briefly brighten drudge-driven days.

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day,” Shakespeare wrote on one of his down days, probably after being informed by his government of the day of another new restriction on his conduct in public.

Has any other generation ever suffered such prolonged interference and interruption in its daily life as we poor souls have suffered through 2020 and ‘21? It’s permissible to answer “yes” even if you’re too young to remember “the bad old days” that old codgers of my age insist on remembering.

Memories of the Great Depression that we old folk lived through as children and teenagers take us back to less than happy times that I can assure you were desperately real. We were often ragged in clothes, sometimes very hungry, and it lasted for years.

Health care was provided by parents, neighbours, a district nurse, or a family doctor who charged cash for each visit but often settled for something bartered or a promise to pay next visit. Or never, because cash was hard to come by.

Public health was in its infancy when I was in mine. It was public health doctors, nurses, scientists and thinkers who, sometimes forcefully, shepherded us to better times. My left arm still has the vaccination marks from my first shots in the early rounds of the fight to conquer smallpox.

Victory didn’t come overnight but come it did after years of vaccinations. Smallpox, once a frightening scourge and killer, was brought under control. In the long haul of history, humankind has steadily and positively expanded its knowledge of the body and mind, what keeps it functioning and what threatens its vital spark. And medical research and application have provided us with a way of life so long denied millions who have lived and suffered and died in plagues once thought incurable.

We are fortunate to be living where we are, whether by the random choice of birth or a wise earlier family decision to seek that elusive better way of life. It is unfortunate that in the search, we have lost the appreciation of what we have; that however long we may live, it will not be long enough to always remember it’s what we put into life and living that counts far more than what we take out.

Back in 1902, Sir William Osler, physician and man of letters (1849-1919), writing in The Montreal Medical Journal (1902), cautioned critics of new medical procedures designed to eliminate or control what had been uncontrollable for centuries. Remember, he wrote, “the greater the ignorance, the greater the dogmatism.”

And listen to the frontline workers in public health. They are on our side; they always have been. Make sure you get your shots.