Special Updates

When The Last Train To Town Was 10pm

When 90 stalwart citizens gathered at city hall on a damp February evening in 1906 to consider a proposal that Victoria, British Columbia was now ready and willing to form a branch of the burgeoning Canadian Club, it was a group in a hurry.

Not because there was any desperate need to get Victoria draped in new Canadian national finery, but because as the chairman for the evening explained as he called the meeting to order … “many in attendance had already purchased tickets for a Victoria Musical Society concert scheduled that same evening at the Victoria Theatre with famed violinist Arthur Hartman,” the featured attraction being accompanied by Adolphe Borshke on piano.

I mentioned that concert in my blog a short time ago quoting The Daily Colonist review of Hartman’s performance. It is worth repeating with the added information that the crowd of 90, having elected a club president and executive, then rushed over to the theatre to hear Mr. Hartman “playing selections from the wailing melodies of the Russian steppes and the strangely similar folk songs of the Indians (East or West not known) … all perfectly interpreted to a large audience whose enthusiasm increased with each number. The audience was held in breathless attention and accorded applause of a volume that has not been exceeded in the history of this city.”

There was a wonderful footnote to the review. It read: “Adolphe Borschke showed an almost equal command of the piano.” Yes, well, what’s the old saying about faint praise?

Tickets, by the way, were 50 cents and $1.50 – the same price as tickets for the next Victoria Theatre production of “Susan In Search of a Husband” and a week later, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” – a musical extravaganza featuring two brass bands, ponies, bloodhounds, wagons drawn by handsome Shetland ponies, beautiful electrical effects PLUS EVE AND HER GOLDEN CHARIOT (capital letters in all the adverts). And, it could all be seen for free in a street parade before the show. I searched the files but never could find an explanation of the role EVE played in helping Eliza cross the ice.

The 90 founders of Victoria Canadian Club needed all the theatre entertainment they could afford in the winter of its birth. The Daily Colonist tells us the winter of 1906-07 was “bitter” with several feet of snow and severe delivery problems. No worries over still-to-be-invented, installed, toppled hydro power poles; no natural gas pipelines to be disturbed by landslides or protests.

With homes and businesses heated by wood stoves and furnaces, Victorians had wisely stockpiled enough wood and coal to keep themselves warm – but only as long as it could be delivered.

Once the snows climbed beyond a few inches in 1906-07, delivery failed. Ice bedded beneath snow made it impossible for natural horse-power to haul coal or wood, and the internal combustion automobile with all its evils was still a virtual unknown.

Victoria survived, as does still the Canadian Club. And, theatre and arts continue to entertain – not that we haven’t lost a few valuable qualities of life with the passage of the years. But this is not a lament for the loss of “the good old days” when some citizens had to occasionally break up and burn furniture to keep the kitchen stove generating warmth.

But it is to regret that, with all the comforts we expect and demand today, we have let slip away some comforts we once treasured –

lost by bad government decisions or our own carelessness.

We can read in the newspapers of the day that in the winter of 1906-07, “Colwood and Langford Lakes were deep frozen with special trains running from Victoria to Langford to accommodate the skaters, with the last train home at 10 p.m.” (Do I hear you whisper Colwood crawl?)

The Colonist waxed lyrical: “The scene in the late afternoon was exceedingly pretty, for the sunset, visible over the tall fir trees, almost equalled any to be seen in Italy and this all with the effect caused by the glow of many campfires against the dazzling white of the snow. Every rank of life from town was represented in the happy throng.”

When the snow disappeared, the people switched to special theatre entertainments and “BC Electric ran special trams to the Japanese Tea Gardens on the Gorge and doubled the schedule for the Gorge Festival.” Of the event, the Colonist reported, “the green foliage of the pine trees was lighted by numerous festoons of electric bulbs, here and there booths gaily illuminated with Chinese lanterns at which ladies – immaculately clad in white – dispensed flowers, candies and other commodities to eager buyers while in the background played the band of the Fifth Regiment.”

I wrote about the Gardens last week and the recent decision of Esquimalt Council to consider restoration of the Japanese Gardens as a future project. I hope they do and that I live long enough to catch a BC Transit bus out there and back.

“Never again” Over a Cup of Tea

“It was a military necessity,” Ottawa said when it coldly, calmly, arbitrarily, confiscated the right of Japanese Canadians to own property after Japan attacked the USA Pacific fleet based at Pearl Harbour.

That December 7, 1941 attack touched off a panic reaction in the western states and all too soon slopped over the 49th parallel where a large commercial fishing fleet operated between Victoria in the south, Prince Rupert in the north and a multitude of smaller ports between.

Not all the fishing boats were owned and operated by Japanese Canadians, but many were – and for every one of them was a whispered conjecture that when at sea they would make wonderful spy ships for a Japanese navy.

In fear, the USA was organizing the controlled eviction of citizens of Japanese ancestry from all coastal areas. Their new government controlled “camps” were not called prisons; just “controlled.”

In Canada, Japanese families were treated much the same. Individual fishing boat owners were stripped of ownership and their vessels sold at giveaway prices while they and their families were shipped to “camps” in the Interior.

It was not just fishermen who suffered from the heavy hand of a panicked government.

One Japanese Canadian who had his life’s work and achievements seized was Mr. Eikichi Kagetsu. He was active in the forest industry, owned a railway and marine industry developments including an oyster farm. He lost it all; dispossessed by decree based on unfounded assumptions.

The detailed story of Mr. Kagetsu is now part of what is described as “the massive archive and oral histories” being collected by the University of Victoria Landscape of Injustice research program in co-operation with the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby.

They have set 2021 as the year they hope to have a touring exhibit ready to show the world.

It will undoubtedly contain a section on Esquimalt’s once famous Japanese Teahouse – Canada’s first Japanese garden and teahouse located in what is now Esquimalt Gorge Park. It was opened in 1907 by brothers Hayato and Kensuke Takata and operated successfully until 1942 when they were both interned.

Writing recently for UVic News (http.//www.uvic.ca/news/topics/2018+Japanese-teahouse-gorge+news) Stephanie Harrington describes the old teahouse at its best and at its vandal destroyed demise. “It took 35 years to nurture the tea gardens, which opened in 1907, and mere months to destroy what the brothers had built.”

Which brings me in my own convoluted way to an announcement by Esquimalt municipal council Council that it is considering building a new Japanese Tea Garden on the old site. A good idea and a fitting reminder of what can happen in the finest of nations when racism runs riot in defiance of logic and basic decency. Leaning on expertise available at UVic or the Mikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre and true to tradition the Japanese Tea Garden “with hundreds of Japanese lanterns hung throughout grounds dotted with bonsai and cherry trees” could be reborn.

A place for calm conversations during which we can acknowledge past failures of our government and we, the people of the day who raised no objections at the time but now pledge “never again” over a good cup of tea.

Flowers Are Not The Answer

Flowers are not the answer. Not in small bunches stuck in fences or piled high in ever-growing mini-mountains of dying stalks and once bright blossoms.

Thousands of flowers marking the sites of 21st Century massacres and all placed reverently but untidily with messages of love and respect by people for people they never met, never knew.

Most of the floral tributes carry messages of goodwill for the victims of the latest barbaric execution. At the time of this writing, the most recent slaughter occurred a week ago in Christchurch, New Zealand, but given the current state of insanity in the world – heaven forbid – it could have been equalled or surpassed by now.

New Zealand, population around four million, is roughly the same size as the Canadian province of British Columbia. It is a peaceful country boasting no poisonous snakes or other dangerous wildlife and possessing a natural beauty that matches or surpasses any other country in the world. It is not hard to find travellers who endorse those claims – and the more important one that New Zealanders, whether native Maori or more recent immigrant stock, have created a most hospitable nation.

The national response to the tragedy that saw 50 New Zealanders executed while at prayer was a lesson to other nations, great and small, on how to handle a major crisis without creating panic in the general population.

The first-responder reaction was swift, culminating in the arrest of the Australian gunman. The arrest is significant because for us in Canada, who see all too often similar mass shootings in the USA, rarely is the assassin taken alive.

It was a time of high emotion, a time when the smallest of verbal sparks could create an explosive crowd reaction.

Within hours of the mass killing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, 38, called a press conference to address the nation. It was a classic act of leadership and quite Churchillian in tone. Blunt from the outset, she quickly mastered the quaver in her voice to earn a headline in The Guardian newspaper: “Real leaders do exist: Jacinda Ardern uses solace and steel to guide a broken nation.”

The morning following the tragedy she was in Christchurch with, The Guardian tells us, “the majority of her cabinet ministers and opposition leaders, meeting with members of the Muslim community … She held them in her arms as they sobbed, whispering words of condolence and pressing her cheek against theirs.”

The following day, she was reporting to parliament with a tribute to the Muslim community. Her first words were in Arabic: “As-salaam-alaikum (Peace be upon you).” A silent house listened as she told them “one of the roles I never anticipated having and hoped never to have, is to voice the grief of a nation.”

She has never voiced the name of the shooter and says she never will. She urged others to do the same. “He sought notoriety … it was one of his goals … we will deny him that.” She hasn’t asked the media specifically to do the same, which is a pity because it controls the notoriety factor.

This brings me round-robin, back to flowers which have become a mandatory sign of caring when disasters major or minor occur in public places. I accept the fact that the people who buy the flowers and place them do so in kindness of heart – but I think they could deliver a better message.

PM Ardern listed an alternative when she named actions she was taking in the aftermath although she never mentioned floral tributes. She did tell survivors of the mass shooting that they would be supported financially if the need arose.

It was a comforting assurance, not as pretty as a bunch of roses, but far more practical and longer lasting.

On Friday, one week after the shootings shocked the nation, the PM called for a national day of prayerful remembrance. “We are broken hearted,” she told the world and her people, “but we are not broken.” The call to prayer was the traditional “adhan” made to every corner of New Zealand via national television and radio. The prime minister said she wanted survivors and the world to know “New Zealand mourns with you; we are one.”

And I am left wondering if Canada could find a similar voice, calm but defiant and reassuring in a time of a major national crisis? Or whom among our provincial leaders BC could confidently follow through and beyond adversity .

An Immigrant – But Not a Pioneer

I was chatting with a new immigrant to Canada a few days ago; one who had arrived in Victoria in 2018. She felt she was adjusting reasonably well to a new job and making new friends in a new neighbourhood in a new country.

“But it hasn’t always been an easy year,” she said. “When did you come out?”

“June 1948,” I replied.

“Wow! You were a real pioneer. How did you get here?”

It wasn’t the first time I had been “admired” for being a post-war pioneer, nor the first time I had explained that while five days on an ocean liner, then five on a giant trans-continental train got a little wearing towards the end, it was luxury travel when compared with the covered wagons and carts of the real sod-busting pioneers.

British Columbia was well-established by the time I got here, but it hadn’t always been “British” – although the Brits had been poking around the coast since 1579. According to the late Salt Spring Island author Sam Bawlf, Francis Drake – later Sir Francis – circumnavigated Vancouver Island, reached the Queen Charlottes (now Haida Gwaii), then sailed back south via the Inside Passage making landfall at Campbell River and Nanaimo and declaring all the land north of what is now San Francisco to be “New Albion.”

But Drake was more interested in pirating Spanish treasure ships loaded with silver en route to the Royal Court of Spain than establishing wilderness outposts, so he left the Northwest to the Spaniards.

By the 1700s, Spain was the principal power with small outposts dotting the coast and one large one at Nootka here on Vancouver Island under the administration of one Bodega Quadra, and, for a few years, under a Spanish army captain named Don Pedro Alberni. Both are well remembered in the naming of Quadra Island, Quadra Street, the Alberni Canal and Valley and the twin cities of Port Alberni and Alberni, now amalgamated.

It was with Quadra that British Captain George Vancouver eventually negotiated the transfer of ownership of what the Spaniards called New Spain to the British. Quadra’s and Vancouver’s island became British and thus part of Drake’s New Albion. Spain gave up all claims of land between the Pacific Northwest and what was then Spanish California.

It would be close to another 200 years, 1858, before New Albion was officially named British Columbia by Queen Victoria … six years after the first street plan for Victoria and just four years before the City of Victoria was incorporated in 1862.

My “new immigrant” asked what happened to the native tribes living here when Spain, then England, claimed the land for their royal patrons and masters.

“They’re still here,” I said. “Still trying to get at least some of their land back.”

“I didn’t know that,” she replied.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “A lot of British Columbian’s don’t know or don’t care to know. It all happened in the real pioneer days when the white people seriously believed they were a superior race.”

Victoria was growing up from a tent city to a fort to a frontier town to a sophisticated city in the early 1900s. At least, that’s how it was portrayed in the pages of the Colonist … the oldest newspaper in Canada west of Winnipeg.

As the new century took hold, men and women – real pioneers on the edge of the known world – yearned for touches of the civilized world they had left.

In Victoria, a musical society was created and brought to the frontier the most famous violinist of the era, Arthur Hartman, who played to a sold-out audience in the Victoria Theatre.

The following day, the Colonist waxed eloquently in praise of Mr. Hartman’s “playing of selections from the wailing melodies of the Russian steppes and the strangely similar folk songs of the Indians … all perfectly interpreted to a large audience whose enthusiasm increased with each number. The audience was held in breathless attention and accorded applause of a volume that has not been exceeded in the history of this city …”

With not a dry eye in the house or a native in the audience.

The Right to Know

It is the mantra of media: “The right to know.” The hymn every reporter and editor sing when probing questions are being asked; when “confidential” government reports are being pried loose, begged, borrowed or glowingly welcomed in plain brown paper envelopes.

“The right to know,” sometimes sung with religious fervour, sometimes bayed like hounds on the hunt for a politician wounded by allegations of scandal and ripe to be brought down and savaged.

Pure in the search for truth and justice, “the right to know” is battle cry, shield and protector against all who would brand editorial writers and reporters slavering jackals and enemies of “the people” and columnists like yours truly as “they who come down from the hills after the battle is over and bayonet the wounded.”

It hasn’t always been this way. Back in August 2003, I wrote a column on the findings of a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) meeting in February in Perth, Australia, to discuss Parliament and the Media, with “the right to know” a high priority. Its findings – Recommendations for an Informed Democracy – were surprisingly free of harsh criticism of the media, and courteously understanding of the role of the press in a free society.

Far more, understanding, I suggested, than we in the press were of the politicians we bayonet.

There was a clear recognition by the politicians that a public figure automatically sacrifices much of the private life the rest of us cherish. The study declared: “The public’s right to know must be balanced against the individual’s right to privacy – which must sometimes be sacrificed by public figures to the extent that their private lives impinge on their public roles. The responsible determination of the balance between the public’s legitimate right to know and public curiosity is a matter for the media initially (then) for the public itself, and if necessary, ultimately for the independent judiciary.”

Clearly, politicians recognize their loss of privacy; equally clearly, they place a heavy responsibility on the press to differentiate between “the public’s legitimate right to know” and prurient “public curiosity” which all too often dominates coverage of events involving political personalities. To both sides, the CPA study group sent the reminder that there should always be an “independent judiciary” from which to seek a ruling.

The government of British Columbia has just moved into that judicial zone with a request to a retired but “independent judiciary” to sort out accusations and denials in what might be titled the Speaker Plecas affair which led to the suspension of Clerk Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz.

The CPA study findings and recommendations were forwarded to all Commonwealth members with the aforementioned decision in BC being an indication that the CPA recommendations registered here.

The Commonwealth parliamentarians pushed beyond the “right to know” and “public curiosity” into the much harder-to-decide issues when “the public interest” clashes with “the national interest.” The SNC-Lavalin issue springs to mind as the fixed photo-op smile on PM Justin Trudeau fades to sunset frown.

The CPA solution, now 16 years old but still worth listening to: “When ‘the public interest’ is claimed by government to be in conflict with the demand for secrecy in ‘the national interest’, the determination of what constitutes ‘the national interest” and when it should take precedence over the ‘public interest’ should be assigned by law to the courts.” If adopted, that recommendation would strip governments of the all too often used safety blanket of political expediency – the blanket the PMO now appears to be reaching for.

A few other thoughts from the CPA under the heading Freedom of Expression: “The media’s right to criticize and express opinion, as well as to report, must be guaranteed and no legislation should be passed which impinges on that right.”

The study recommends serious due diligence and considerations by all politicians for media rights before launching libel lawsuits but acknowledges that sometimes such suits may be justified. But, if they are, and if the courts rule libel and/or defamation have been proven, the CPA study urges the courts to be careful when assessing damages because “excessive or disproportionate levels of damages in legal actions have a chilling effect on free speech and should be discouraged” – for which all media workers say “thank you, we’ll try to be kinder.”

And, should we – writer or politician – ever have to apologize, may our regrets be as skillful as those offered by Irish politician R.B. Sheridan who said, when asked to say he was sorry for calling a fellow MP a liar: “Mr. Speaker. I said the honourable member was a liar it is true and I am sorry for it. The honourable member may place the punctuation where he pleases.”

A Weary Road For Justice

It took seven years, but a pair of Saskatchewan businessmen have finally won their claim to have been wrongfully accused of workplace misdemeanours and fired “for cause” on Jan. 20, 2012.

I’m raising the matter here in Victoria, a few thousand kilometres from Saskatoon, only because the prairie fire that sparked that seven-year-old war of words appears to be breaking anew on Vancouver Island. The backdrop is a little different as are the occupations of the lead players – but the events that led to their arbitrary removal from important jobs have key similarities, and flash warning signals from the prairie-past to those who walk a similarly hazardous Vancouver Island trail today.

William Antonishyn, 62, and Brian Swidrovich, 56, were senior managers with Credit Union Centre. The company is now known as SaskTelCentre. In a story published Feb. 26, 2019, Saskatoon Star Phoenix reporter Andrea Hill tells us in 2011 the year before their firing, Antonishyn and Swidrovich had earned a little more than $100.000.

The Star Phoenix states the charge leading to their dismissal claimed the pair “had inappropriately expended nearly $8,000 on a trip to Arizona with the organization’s outgoing executive director in the fall of 2011. Expenses included airfare, meals, drinks, golf and tickets to an Arizona Cardinals football game.”

Through their lawyer, Larry Seiferling, the pair launched a wrongful dismissal suit arguing the trip, and subsequent agenda had been company arranged. Lawyers for the company argued at trial there was no legitimate reason for the trip; that it was not approved by a new director or the board of directors, and that Antonishyn and Swidrovich should have known better than to attend.

Justice Richard Elson rejected the argument. The Star Phoenix reports that prior to the hiring of a new director – (hired after the Arizona trip was planned) – the management team was given “a relatively free hand” in deciding how to make the centre successful and had gone on similar trips with no repercussions.

In British Columbia, Speaker Darryl Plecas has touched off an explosive debate on what he and his once special advisor, now reporting as his chief of staff, regard as a litany of reckless public spending which could prove to be criminal. As a result of those charges, the BC Legislature suspended Senior Clerk of the House Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz from their duties pending a fact-finding inquiry by a retired judge.

James and Lenz have been granted limited time to defend their actions in early proceedings but insist they are all legal and explainable. All they can do is wait – and hope the investigating Judge will clear their names and eliminate the need to launch further legal action claiming wrongful dismissal. 

In upholding the claim that Antonishyn and Swidrovich had been fired without just cause, Justice Elson said he understood new standards had been introduced in the workplace, but they couldn’t be applied retrospectively. “I find it questionable for (a new director) to have retrospectively applied his own standards to practices that existed well before he arrived on the scene.”

The two men will receive between $250,000 to $300,000 each in compensation. Their lawyer says some consideration is being given to appealing the lack of compensation for moral and punitive damage in the court decision.

“I’ve just got to look at whether the amount for the years that these people have suffered and waited is correct. At the end of the day, they are happy that they finally got the court to say they didn’t do anything wrong, but there’s still some sense of frustration with the process – with the length of time and the fact that your life can be ruined by something like this.”

How long will the BC epic lurch along? No bets, but the Saskatchewan case, simple in comparison, took seven years to settle and left several battered personal lives in its wake.

There has to be a better way.

I Think Pogo Just Rolled His Eyes

Sitting on my desk between two computer terminals is a delightful porcelain miniature of Pogo, the wonderful philosopher created by Walt Kelly. On his head, just above apologetic eyes, there’s a small bird’s nest with a tiny bluebird resident, presumably chirping merrily.

He’s been sitting on my desk, encouraging or chastising me, since the late 1950s when I was managing editor of the Penticton Herald. He was a gift from a charming reader who had talked her way past various front office secretaries “to speak personally to the editor or the person who writes the editorials.”

Having finally reached where I was sitting, she presented me with a splendid Walt Kelly “made in Ireland” Pogo. She hoped it would inspire me from time to time, and “above all else remind you that sometimes you write like a bird brain.”

Then, with the brightest of smiles, she was gone, and Pogo was left with his mournful eyes to offer me a choice – stuff him in a desk drawer or leave him as a staring desk reminder that readers should always be respected.

He’s been working overtime these past two or three weeks when I have devoted blogs to what I call the Speaker Plecas file which has touched off primeval upheavals in the Legislature. And each time I wrote, a Pogo glance reminded me we had walked this road before and survived a situation which saw a high-ranking public servant turfed from office with heavy-handed and occasionally, ill-timed interventions.

It was on February 15, 1956, that George Ernest Pascoe Jones was appointed Chairman of the BC Purchasing Commission and “in charge of all supplies needed in the public service.” Eight years later, on October 2, 1964, Jones was charged “with unlawful acceptance of benefits in his capacity as chairman.” The same day, an Order in Council was passed to relieve Jones of all duties related to the Commission. To the consternation of then Premier W.A.C. Bennett’s government, Jones refused to vacate his office. He had been appointed to hold office during good behaviour and was removable only by the Lieutenant Governor “on address of the Legislative Assembly.”

Little more than two months later on Jan. 15, 1965, the criminal charges were dropped, after a trial in Victoria County Court. The Attorney General appealed the acquittal but “on motion by the plaintiff (it was) stricken out as frivolous and vexatious.”

We wouldn’t allow that today, would we? Frivolous and vexatious behaviour; people suspended from their duties because someone suspected them of misbehaving, and then left to dangle for weeks with accusations backed by flashy rhetoric and only minimal defence permitted.

Last Thursday (Feb 21,2019) Speaker Plecas touched off his latest string of explosive misdemeanours and announced that he was now ready to step aside and let a Management Committee appointee make a full scale inquiry into what has become a sorry mess of real and/or imagined “vexatious” behaviour. The local newspaper quotes Speaker Plecas as saying “If this weren’t so serious it would be the stuff of comedy.”

Yes, indeed, but frankly from where the public sits most of the lead players already appear to be humming the “bring on the clowns” chorus or chanting “stir up strife, stir up trouble” with the ladies of Endor.

I have been reminded that those making charges today should be sure they do not finish up as the government accusers of G.E.P. Jones finished up when push came to shove. In the final Supreme Court of Canada appeal the court found in favour of Jones with a terse but telling note that the defendant in the case – Premier W.A.C. Bennett – “never publicly gave any explanation or any reason for retiring and removing the plaintiff from office at any time, either in the Legislative Assembly or outside the Legislative Assembly.”

Last Thursday Speaker Plecas said he thought the time had come for him to step back and “let someone other than me be making comment.” Some critics might suggest he should have stepped back when he caught the first whispers of deception and discontent, reported his concerns to the Attorney General and remained well clear of the rough and tumble of political debate.

But better late than never and far better that a final judgment should be arrived at in a quiet, thoughtful conference room rather than yammered out with spitting rhetoric in the political trenches. Time to get accusers and accused in this drama out of the Legislature to a place where wheat and chafe can be quickly separated.

Time to get the Speaker out of the trenches and onto his elevated throne where “the House” expects him to “preserve order and decorum and decide questions of order” while reminding members that “no debate shall be permitted on any decision. No decision shall be subject to an appeal to the House.”

It should be interesting to watch the final scenes play out. Will Speaker Plecas step away from his powerful title for the duration of the final act? Or will he “preserve decorum but stay out of the debate?” He may already have anticipated a problem in that regard.

On Thursday the Times Colonist quoted him as saying: “House leaders will decide if confidence in these two officers (James and Lenz) has been undermined to the point that regardless of the outcome of further processes, audits and investigations Mr.James and Mr.Lenz cannot realistically return to their positions as senior executives of the Legislative Assembly.”

I think my Irish Pogo, just rolled his eyes.

Sometimes What You Don’t Say Can Defame

Everything looked shipshape in the great debating chamber. Speaker Darryl Plecas, stern of face; arms – elbow to hands resting on broad chair arms; eyes flickering over rows of slowly filling chairs as members of the BC Legislature take their seats.

Slowly the chamber fills, conversations drop to murmurs and then silence, as Speaker Plecas calls for the prayer that marks each daily opening ceremony. It is 1:35 pm, Feb. 16, 2019, and all is as calm and bright as the Christmas carol that we stopped singing a few weeks back. And prayers have never been more needed.

There have been a few changes to the cast routinely on stage for these opening days of a new legislative session. A Deputy Clerk has replaced Craig James in the processional of the Speaker from his office to his throne of authority and Sergeant at Arms Gary Lenz has been replaced as the bearer of the golden mace.

Those two senior officials have been suspended – with pay – pending investigation of suspicions of careless control of public spending – or worse. Speaker Plecas has made public a list of his concerns; the RCMP is investigating; accountants are doing “deeper audits.”

James and Lenz were given a tight time frame to review the Plecas list. And, at this writing, they remain uncharged as the 41st Parliament gets underway with bucolic calm covering nasty clouds of suspicion critics cannot or dare not name.

Under the dome of Belleville Street, it is not unknown for exaggerated office gossip to be wrong and lead to injustice.

Back in 1964, a gentleman named George Ernest Pascoe Jones was Chairman of the Provincial Purchasing Commission. On Oct. 2, 1964, the government laid criminal charges alleging unlawful acceptance of benefits, and on the same day, an Order in Council was passed designed to relieve Jones from all his duties with the Commission “until further notice.”

Mr. Jones politely refused to vacate his office. A few months went by, and on Feb 25, 1965, the Provincial Secretary introduced a bill entitled An Act to Provide for the Retirement of George Ernest Pascoe Jones. It became law by assent a month later on March 26, 1965.

Three weeks before, on March 5th, Premier W.A.C. Bennett had delivered a “state of the province” speech to Social Credit Party faithful had avoided detailed reference to the long running Jones affair. All he had for his followers was: “I am not going to talk about the Jones boy. I could say a lot, but let me just assure you of this; the position that the government has taken is the right position.”

And George Ernest Pascoe Jones (Jeep from initials GEP to his friends) sued Premier Bennett for slander. He won after a series of trials and appeals, and appeals of appeals. Jeep’s lawyer throughout the ordeal was Tom Berger.

Readers interested in every twist and turn can find them at Supreme Court of Canada, Jones v Bennett (1969) S.C.R. 277.

There is a lesson to be learned and remembered in the reasoning of the Justices that sometimes what you imply but don’t say can be as libelous as what you enunciate. Assumptions made but not based on solid foundations can be dangerous and cruel.

I have no idea how long it will take for the charges, truths, denials, hints, innuendos to lurch their way through the current public spending scandal to the truth, but it can’t be soon enough. It took two years give or take a day or two for “the Jones boy” to clear the courts and win a modest settlement.

While we wait I’m wondering how government workers are finding the on the job office environment? It should be a great place to work, but it can’t be a happy one when you don’t know if the guy or gal on the next desk is a conscience-driven whistleblower or conspiracy clone.

Time for government – and I mean every proudly entitled Member of the Legislative Assembly plus all holding a supervisory position in public service – to get this ship righted before already shaky morale from scuppers to bridge, brings fresh disasters.

We Continue to Live in Interesting Times

Should be interesting next Tuesday when the BC Legislature opens a new session with a Throne Speech; the welcoming of a new NDP MLA elected in a Nanaimo byelection a week ago; and a Speaker held in awe by some as a whistleblower supreme but by others, a lot less than awe.

It is expected the ceremonial opening will unfold smoothly with any twinges of sympathy for two missing major players noted mentally but never mentioned, not even whispered. The absence of senior Clerk Craig James and Sergeant at Arms Gary Lenz will, for sure, be noted and maybe by some with sympathy as the two senior legislature officers continue to serve an arbitrary suspension from their duties – with pay.

They were relieved of their duties in January after in-house inquiries raised suspicions of wrong-doing in the mind of Speaker Darryl Plecas. Plecas later made public a list of what he felt were misdemeanours and reported the list had been handed to the RCMP and a police investigation was underway. He informed the Legislature and suspensions from duty quickly followed.

Liberal MLAs would later complain they had not been fully informed when they agreed to the suspensions. They expressed dismay at the timing which saw James and Lenz escorted from the Legislature while the House was in session – and without explanation as to why City of Victoria police officers were on hand to make sure they left their offices and the Legislature precinct quietly.

As of this writing, the two employees still have not been officially informed of why their evictions took place in the manner in which they occurred. However, they were given copies of the voluminous report made public by Speaker Plecas and instructed that they had a couple of weeks to respond. They did that on February 7 with a strong denial that they had done anything wrong.

Green Party leader Andrew Weaver has praised Plecas and his staff for their courage in digging out the scandals and making them public. He made no mention of the Canadian historic desire to always find people innocent of any charge before their trial and legal proof of guilt. In recent times the general populace seems to have edged back to more barbarous days. Over the past few days I have had old friends – sensible, kindly people – say of the Plecas report “well it must be true, or he wouldn’t have put all that stuff in.”

To hear people say “it must be true, otherwise they wouldn’t be accused” is astounding. To hear a political leader apparently voicing the same belief is frightening and must be challenged.

We may be wavering but we must never lose the belief that citizens remain innocent until proven guilty which should always be tightly knit with “the quality of mercy (that) is not strained./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./‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes/The throned monarch better than his crown … But mercy is above this sceptred sway,/It is enthroned in the heart of kings,/It is an attribute of God himself;/And earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice./Though justice be thy plea, consider this,/That in the course of justice, none of us/Should see salvation: We do pray for mercy;/And that same prayer doth teach us all to render/The deeds of mercy.” (Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice)

We should be sure that the justice we – Speakers, MLAs, and ordinary folk – demand is graced with mercy and not contaminated with spite or revenge which, as the old saying goes, is a dish best served cold.

An appeal then to protesters or whistleblowers of all stripes. By all means, raise your voices and take action to expose what you feel is wrong – but make sure that in good conscience you do so with the mercy we all seek when we make mistakes.

As I said in my opening words it should be interesting next Tuesday when the Legislature opens. Normally Throne Speech Day is a day with ceremonial flags and bands, guns firing royal salutes and a government written speech of vague promises read by the Lieutenant Governor.

Colourful but not very exciting, Tuesday Feb.12,2019, could be the same old same old. But the current Legislature is a bit of a tinder box these days with Speaker Plecas in high dudgeon over expense claims and his two most senior officers, suspended Clerk James and Sergeant at Arms Lenz, in equally high dudgeon protesting false claims against them. James and Lenz remain “suspended” from their legislative duties so will presumably be forced to watch and monitor proceedings from afar.

Speaker Plecas will, again presumably, be in official presence ready to call “Order!” should such an unlikely call be required on Throne Speech Day. In BC you never know – and it would be interesting to watch a Speaker trying to cool down a rambunctious, flaming debate for which he had provided the spark.

The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same

It was a typical February day in Victoria. A storm system from the north brought what west coasters still cheerfully call “unsettled weather” which means gusty winds, heavy showers and temperatures around 40F with an all-around damp feeling.

In the final days of the month in 1900, Premier Charles Augustus Semlin was finding it difficult to hang on to power, and on February 27th, his shaky tenure ended when his “coalition” government lost a crucial “confidence” vote. Throughout a long wet and windy afternoon, Semlin tried desperately to stitch together another support group with which he could continue to govern, but without success. These were the days before party politics.

Semlin thought he had convinced Lieutenant Governor Thomas Robert McInnes to give him time to recruit a new team during a pre-midnight meeting, following a “secret” support gathering session earlier in the evening at the old Driard Hotel.

He was wrong. McInnes instead informed him he was fired and, in what might be called an “only in BC” moment, the 38-member Legislature challenged McInnes’ royal command and voted 22 to 15 to condemn his actions.

In response on February 28, McInnes asked MLA Joseph Martin if he could form a government. Martin, who had served in other provincial governments, on Vancouver City Council, and was a recent Member of Parliament in England, responded willingly.

McInnes informed the Governor General of Canada that MLA Martin “was best able to meet the necessity of the situation, create decisive issues, and establish final order and something like the usual conditions out of the chaos through which provincial parties had been rent.”

But the BC Legislative Assembly didn’t agree and another sparkling “only in BC” happening was chalked in the record book. When the Legislature was informed of McInnes’ arbitrary changes, the members voted 28-1 against the new government. 

Then came high drama. The Lieutenant Governor was already on his way to the Legislature to prorogue the current sitting and clear the way for the commencement of his Joe Martin era. As McInnes entered the chamber, all but two members marched out. By the time McInnes had walked to the dais from which he would address the Assembly, only the Speaker and the newly-minted Premier Martin remained to greet him.

McInnes delivered his speech and, historian S.W. Jackman tells us, then “left the chamber with boos and catcalls resounding in his ears; 28 February 1900, was a memorable day in Victoria for the whole customary constitutional establishment had collapsed. Respect for authority had gone, and discourtesy to the Lieutenant Governor had become the accepted code of conduct.”

There were “aftershock” repercussions. Martin’s tenure lasted only 106 days. He was replaced by James Dunsmuir in June 1900. Edward Gawler Prior took over in 1902. Then came the sea change in BC politics; the1903 election was the first run on party lines with five political parties – Conservative, Labour, Liberal, Socialist Labour and Socialist Party of BC – with 95 candidates in the race for 42 seats. The premiership would go to the leader of the party winning the most seats – providing he won his own.

In 1903, it was Dewdney’s Sir Richard McBride who had been an MLA since 1898 and brought with his royal recognition the all too rarely found “common touch and common sense” of understanding. He was called “the people’s premier.”

Other changes resulting from the Semlin-Martin scuffles and questionable decisions of L-G McInnes saw McInnes quietly removed from office and replaced by Sir Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbiniere whose claim to fame today rests solely in the dignity and respect he brought to his position and the small street that still bears his name.

And politics remain much like the weather “unsettled” with blustery winds, some heavy rain showers, and intermittent but glorious sunshine.