A Neutral or Biased Public Service?

It was a damp day. Hard to tell whether you were walking through a soft rain or a heavy mist. So, when I walked soggily from the street into Ted Hughes’ office, and he said: “Better hang your raincoat in the hall – and you look as though you could handle a coffee,” I responded with speed.

With raincoat dripping contentedly on a coat stand, my eyeglasses cleared of steam, my notebook rescued slightly crumbled from jacket pocket, and a life-saving sip from a mug of coffee “black, no cream or sugar,” I was ready.

My first question was simple: “What can you tell me about the investigation you are conducting into the affairs of Premier Bill Vander Zalm regarding allegations of conflict of interest?”

“Nothing,” he said.

“Nothing?”

“Nothing to report to you. The Premier requested the investigation on behalf of the government. It would be most unethical for me to make it – or any part of it – it public.”

I should have known better than to ask the question because, having known Ted for a few years, I knew full well that ethics and open pride at being ethical were part and parcel of his daily make-up. When it was ready his report would go first to the government. He knew where his duty lay.

He wasn’t perfect, but in his life as a public servant, he never ceased preaching against what he called the growing tendency to weaken public service by permitting political party loyalty to become more important than the common good.

He didn’t have to like all the people he worked for, but he did owe them the best advice he could give. And, if they had broken any laws or had violated any ethical codes, he did not close a blind eye. At least one Premier and one Attorney General resigned after Ted Hughes investigated their ethical standards. And they were the first to know his findings.

In May 1996, in a Victoria speech to the Institute of Public Administration in Canada, Ted openly warned of the dangers to democracy when an opposition party wins an election after years in the political wilderness and then goes on a job replacement spree. He used as an example a Saskatchewan election in the 1980s and the “new” government’s decision to terminate the employment of many public servants on the grounds the incoming legislators had “lost confidence” in them.

While citing the Saskatchewan experience as “a stark example,” Ted warned of similar upheavals “across the provincial scene of our country … which leads me to the conclusion that the Canadian tradition of a neutral public service career is increasingly under challenge. It is not out of control but, the trend is there, and therefore, in my opinion, it is time for a forceful initiative to reverse it, to restate the virtue of the Canadian tradition, and to appeal to the reason and logic of our elected representatives so that they and the people they represent will appreciate that they all will be much better served by an adherence to the time tested procedures of the past rather than by moving step-by-step to gut one of the greatest safeguards of a vibrant parliamentary democracy.”

Although Ted’s speech made no direct reference to BC, it could have. The province underwent significant public service job changes when Dave Barrett and the NDP defeated W.A.C. Bennett after 20-years in power; and another, less than four years later, when Bill Bennett defeated the NDP and returned Social Credit to power for 15 years (11 with Bill Bennett and four with Bill Vander Zalm and Rita Johnston).

The NDP came back for a decade with four premiers: Mike Harcourt, Glen Clark, Dan Miller, and Ujjal Dosanjh. Dosanjh was defeated and replaced by Liberal Gordon Campbell, followed by Christy Clark, who gave way to the NDP – which will soon be getting ready for another switch or more of the same.

Each time there has been a change of government there has been a public service shake-up. A major when the NDP ended 20-years of Social Credit and thought too many senior public servants had become Socred loyalists. When Bill Bennett took over part of his first year in office was spent gently removing from key positions the NDP appointments.

Ted Hughes died on January 17 after a brief illness. Along with several of his old Saskatchewan friends, I had been scheduled to lunch with him in The Shield and Dragon pub in my retirement residence at Berwick Royal Oak on January 4. Helen, his wife of 65 years, phoned to say Ted would be in hospital undergoing tests that day but that he would reschedule the lunch when he got home.

We always talked about politics, and I wanted to ask him if he’d changed his mind about public service. Back in 1991, he had felt the old essential neutral career rule was under serious challenge. Did he still believe “public employees have a duty to carry out government decisions loyally, irrespective of the party or persons in power and irrespective of their personal opinions?”

With a provincial election looming on not too distant horizons I wanted to ask if BC  had moved any closer in recent years to the old standard of a politically neutral public service or had drifted deeper into the dangerous waters of decisions biased by political party doctrine.

In his 1996 speech, he urged the need for continually striving to reach the day when “a superbly qualified professional public service” would be in place in this province to serve the elected representatives of the people and the public who elected them.” It was, he said “incumbent to foster a neutral public service where purges will not be the order of the day when a government changes but, rather, where continuity will abound, where merit will be awarded and morale maintained at a high level.”

I would like to have asked for an update. But I know he faulted the politicians for the intrusion of partisan politics where none should be.  And I know he would have agreed with Cicero, who once wrote: “He removes the greatest ornament of friendship who takes away from it respect. The good of the people is the chief law.”

(Readers feeling a need for more detail on Ted’s remarkable life story should grab a copy of The Mighty Hughes by Craig McInnes published by heritagehouse.ca.)

 

Where Will Our Government Lead Us?

A few things to consider while nervously observing events in Australia, where that incredible Down Under country is painfully showing the rest of the world what global warming looks like when it lurches from disturbing to calamitous.

Australia, with its vast forests of gum trees and brush, burns a little easier and more rapidly than British Columbia’s tall tree wilderness. But not all that much as our forest firefighters will tell you when they remember 2018 and BC’s record wildfire season. It was a time when several small towns felt isolated and scared.

Australia and BC are blessed with abundant natural resources which, when sold on the international market, have brought them great wealth and afforded their citizens a way of life envied by millions – and even a few Royals seeking a pleasanter lifestyle.

But, benefits usually come with problems. Coal – the “black diamond” that made both Australia and BC rich in resources and their citizens comfortable – brought with it the evil of carbon emissions. And, the countries that bought their coal became the worlds’ leading contributors to excessive carbon emissions and brought on global warming now threatening the entire planet.

China is the leader in carbon emissions, as registered by the Global Carbon Atlas. The latest record I could find indicates 9,839 metric tons in 2017. The USA – which, on President Donald Trump’s orders, has abandoned the international effort to find world-wide solutions to uncontrolled carbon emissions – sits second on the Atlas spewing 5,269 tons of carbon emissions annually; India is third with 2,467 tons.

China and India are the great consumers of coal on the international market. They, along with Japan (1,200 tons a year in metric emissions), have been prime customers for BC and Australian coal for decades.

So why do the Aussies and BC still sell to these countries committing blatant massive violations of safe environmental practices in their primary industries? Both countries have all sorts of federal and provincial environmental rules and regulations governing the mining industry to protect their citizens at home. However, globally, it’s a free-for-all for those who don’t seem to mind contributing to what could be the end of Planet Earth.

So, why not just stop fueling foreign furnaces with our profitable coal … a fuel that could destroy Earth as we know it? Good puritanical thinking for sure, but – there’s always a BUT and this is a big one.

A recent Business in Vancouver (BIV) article tells us, “BC’s mining sector generated $12.3 billion in gross revenue in 2018 – a nearly $4 billion increase over 2016. Higher prices for metallurgical coal and copper helped boost net income for BC miners to $3.5 billion in 2018.” The full report can be found at biv.com/article/2019/05/mining-bc-generated-record-revenue-pwc.

The BIV story goes on to report that payments to government in 2018 through taxes was $900 million. I think it is safe to assume that the loss of $900 million in any government’s revenue would be disastrously reflected in cuts to social programs. And China wouldn’t take long to find another supplier.

There is some urgency for a solution. Nerilie Abram, an Australian climate scientist at the Australian National University, says: “The question we need to ask is, how much worse are we willing to let this get? This (the Australia scene) is what global warming of just over one degree Celsius looks like. Do we really want to see the impacts of three degrees or more?”

Three degrees or more is the trajectory generally forecast by climate scientists.

Footnote: Just before posting this blog, I learned that Germany had announced (Jan16) a plan to close its 84 coal-burning electricity-producing plants by 2038. Germany is sixth on the Global Carbon Atlas list with a 2017 record of 799 tons of pollution discharged annually. Canada is 10th with 473 tons. The legislation will also include closure of Germany’s nuclear plants. Some $45 billion (US) will be budgeted for compensation and the building of new infrastructure and training in new jobs. The new legislation is expected to be in place this summer.

Will Canada and the rest of the world be brave enough to follow?

 

 

 

 

 

Forward Tho’ I Canna see – I Guess And Fear

 

 

Scottish poetry lovers will be celebrating another Burns’ birthday on January 25 (1759) with wild repetitions of: “And we’ll take’ a cup of kindness yet for Auld Lang Syne.”

 

Usually, these are the only words most of them know from his beautiful short poetic appeal to remember past years and friendships. At some gatherings, serious fans will wrestle with dialects, and one or two will take a stab at a rare poem dedicated “To a Mouse” involving a one-sided conversation and advice “to a mouse on turning her up in her nest with the plough.”

 

It is not a children’s poem or a nursery rhyme.

 

Burns was apologizing to the mouse for leaving her only a “wee bit house in ruin from the plough,” its fragile bits and pieces blown away by the wind with little left to build a new house “with bleak December winds still blowing both snell (bitter cold) an’ keen.” All the mouse had left was “a heap of leaves … that cost thee many a weary nibble – and now thou’s turned out for all thy trouble to suffer the winter’s dribble and cranreuch (hoarfrost) cauld.”

 

And the lesson, according to Burns? Well, it’s more for his fellow humans than the mouse which is trembling in fear, a “wee, sleek it, cowrin, tim’rous beastie, O what a panic’s in thy breastie” just waiting for Burns to get out of the way so she can forage her way to another place of shelter. But Burn’s spoke to her anyway and 260 years later we get the message – or at least we should.

 

“But Mousie thou art no thy lane (not alone)

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best-laid schemes of mice and men

Gang aft agley, (oft go astray)

And leave us naught but grief an’ pain

For promised joy

 

“Still thou art blest, compared wi’ me!

The present only touches thee:

But Och! I backward cast my eye

On prospects drear!

And forward, tho’ I canna see

I guess and fear!”

 

I think of the last two lines often when U.S. President Donald Trump threatens and the men and women who could control him become “wee sleekit, cowering, timorous beasties” and leave their nation and the world to guess and fear.

Trusting In God But keeping Their Powder Dry

If you are reading this, it means that on December 27, I survived my 96th birthday and wandered into my 97th year on Planet Earth. Tradition suggests I now murmur, “and I don’t feel a day older than I did yesterday,” which would be true – but barely.

The fact is, the old machine is creaking and groaning in so many places that I need to maintain a coordinated pharmaceutical battle plan to make sure unwelcome bugs are held at bay.

So, while I may not feel any older this week than I did last week, I am. But, I can still wake up in the morning, happy to smell the coffee and share a cup while pontificating on how the fellow citizens we have elected to govern us are letting us down.

There is nothing new in that, of course. Centuries ago, emerging communities decided they would be better off with a small group of intelligent citizens developing and administering laws geared to make the community as a whole a better, healthier, safer place in which to live.

They called it “democracy,” and by and large, it has worked well – although never perfectly – in countries where the people have preferred to live under sometimes bumbling but always freely elected government rather than a dictator’s decree. In Canada, we like the bumbling way; we love the democratic right to complain, often utilize it with glee – and without too much thought.

Sometimes, in our haste to question decisions of governance, we insist on what I call a black or white answer to a sometimes very grey question. A few weeks ago, a short paragraph appeared in a long story on gun control – or the lack of gun control – in the USA. It noted that a recent “in house” notice to members of the Mormon faith had requested members not carry firearms when attending church services.

It shocked me that such a notice could ever be required of churchgoers. That worshippers anywhere would need to be asked to leave their guns of choice at home was unbelievable. That church governors would have to urge firearms be left at home, an unthinkable confession that a house of God could no longer offer what was once traditional protection from evil.

Then, just before 2019 closed its decade ending doors, there came a story out of Texas describing a shooting at a Jewish religious ceremony that involved members of the congregation “returning the fire” of a gunman bent on murders. It was later stated the returned shots were fired by an armed guard in the congregation.

It still bothers me to consider worshippers getting ready for church on a Saturday or Sunday morning being reminded to make sure their handgun is tucked away with their bible – or removed and left at home as an act of faith.

Think about it. It’s not a decision Canadians have to face – yet. But, with inexorable pressure on our living and moral standards, I fear the US of A may one day contaminate us with its steady determination to convince the world that God has been replaced with the gun.

They’ve been working on the conversion since Colonel Valentine Blacker (1778-1823) around 200-years ago urged his troops to  “Put your trust in God – and keep your powder dry.”

 

An Apology

Sorry to miss a week on regular blog output, but events like a new PC and holidays which deprived me of expert guidance through the labyrinth of new techniques have slowed down my already sluggish technical capabilities.

So I thought it wiser just to switch the new monster off until the festive seasons slows down a little and “Dan the man” from ABC Business Services can find time to gently guide me through the maze of new instructions.

Hopefully I’ll be back in this usual spot in a week or 10 days stumbling through the first days of my 97th year on planet earth after surviving my 96th birthday on the 27th. And I hope readers who have been with me for a good part of my journey so far will be waiting with their kind words and knuckle raps.

You are good companions to travel with.

 

“Trapper” John’s Christmas As Requested By Readers

The log cabin lay snugged down in foothills snow. Inside “Trapper” John Norton put another log on the fire, pulled up his chair and chatted with his dog Rover, his only companion and a good listener.

Trapper John is a fictional but believable character. He, Rover and the log cabin  were created by Rev. William Henry Harrison Murray back in the late 1800s. They remain believable today and nice to visit at Christmas time if you like stories about old men who sit by the fire and talk with their canine friends on how to best celebrate the festive season.

If you’ve never met Murray’s wilderness men then you should Google  “How Trapper John Kept His Christmas” and “John Norton’s Vagabond” for two Christmas stories, simply told with old fashioned charm and carrying messages as strong and relevant as Dickens’ Scrooge.

Vagabond is my favourite. It tells the story of Trapper John sitting by his fire and asking Rover what they should do about the vagabonds who wander the hills, steal from legitimate traplines, are an unsavory and untrustworthy lot, generally shunned and despised by “decent” folk. Trapper John explains to Rover that while he doesn‘t have much time for the vagabonds or their way of life, they are fellow human beings and that many of them may just be down on their luck.

He says that earlier in the evening he’d been reading “the Book” where it says “give to him that lacketh and, from him that hath not, withhold not thine hand …”

“There it is Rover,” Trapper says,  “we are to give to the man that lacks, vagabond or no vagabond. If he lacks food, we are to give him food; if he lacks garments we are to give him garments; if he lacks Christmas dinner, Rover, we are to give him Christmas dinner…”

So, Trapper John gouged invitations on birch-bark to a Christmas dinner at his cabin and nailed them to trees in the vicinity of remote wilderness trails inviting all who read, vagabonds and fellow trappers, to come dine with him.

And, come Christmas Day, his “table lacked not guests for nearly every chair was occupied.” Twenty men had breasted the storm that they might be at that dinner and some had traversed a 30-mile trail to be there; a motley company gathered for a remarkable event.

Trapper John thanked everyone for honouring him by sharing his table “because I hated on this day of feasting and gladness to eat my food alone. I knew that the day would be happier if we spent it together.”

And then it was time to say good night and goodbye and he asked his guests to take with them more than just the memory of a well-fed, pleasant evening: “This be the lesson I want you all to take away with you as you go – that Christmas is a day of feasting and giving and laughing, but above everything else it is the day for forgiving and forgetting. Some of you are young – and may your days be long on the earth – and some of your heads are as white as mine and your years (left) not many, but be that as it may, whether our Christmas days be many or few let us remember in good or ill fortune, alone or with many, that Christmas above all else is the day for forgiving and forgetting.”

Trapper John reflected that while it had taken a long time for him to learn the true spirit of Christmas – “I’ve  learned it at last.”

And, the old man extended to his now departing guests a blessing and a request I first brought to readers in a column some 30-years ago, and have repeated a few times over the years. I do so again without apology because it remains for ever timely – and needed.

“Ah, friends, dear friends, as years go on and heads get gray – how fast the guests do go! Touch hands, touch hands with those that stay. Strong hands to weak, old hands to young, around the Christmas board, touch hands. The false forget, the foe forgive, for every guest will go and every fire burn low and cabin empty stand. Forget, forgive, for who may say that Christmas day may ever come to host or guests again. Touch hands.”

Have a wonderful, loving, giving and forgiving, Christmas.

Let’s Hope Samuel Johnson Got It right

Maybe it’s just old age, but as I push through to my 97th year, I find myself wondering what life will be like 100 years from now for a child born on my December 27th, 96th birth day.

I haven’t yet come up with an answer, and there is a school of thought that says I never will because mankind, by neglect, will have eliminated life on our home planet before the next century runs its course. But, clinging to the hope that mankind will wake up and avert the forecast cataclysmic end to life on Planet Earth, I continue to wonder what life will be like for new-borns hitting the century mark in 2120.

Maybe intrepid readers can make it a family game of guessing what BC will look like 100 years from now. They will have to be wild guesses because the leap from 2020 to 2120 will surely be as nothing when compared with the leap in my not-quite-a-century starting in 1923.

In the year I came caterwauling into life in the front bedroom of No. 23 Botterill Street, Nuneaton, Warwickshire, houses and streets were lit by gas. Each night, the lamp-lighter on his bicycle carrying a long pole with a flint wheel sparker on the tip, provided dusk entertainment as without even a pause, he wheeled down the street, pole aloft, to touch and spark to light each street lamp. At dawn, he would ride his route again to turn the street lamps off for the day.

That street entertainment ended the day they laid electric cables and hooked street lamps and houses with the new-fangled and highly suspicious electric light. Children adapted quickly, but housewives, new brides and young mothers, born and raised in homes where an oil lamp or candle was the only after-dark light source, took longer to appreciate the blessing.

There were no monthly statements for monthly power use. Supply was more “cash and carry” with a cash meter in every house. If the power went out while dinner was being served, a silver coin would bring it back to life – briefly.

It was years later that the houses lining the streets discovered running water from electrically heated tanks, and the new-fangled electricity brought its multitude of gadgets to make life a little easier. And, supply became “friendlier” but was not always blessed. Television brought the world in colour to our living rooms and the insidious cell phone – once “owned” only by Dick Tracey in the comic strips of newspapers -threatened our every awakened moment.

The restrictive boundaries of life that once held all but deep-water mariners, intrepid explorers or invading armies close to home, began to fade.

I remember as a juvenile, my father taking me in summer to see barnstorming Royal Air Force flyers put on a Post WW1 flying show. They were selling brief joyrides for a few pence, but the great depression was on and even most minor expenditures were restricted. I remember watching with awe as the two already-old biplanes took off in tandem, fooled around a bit, looped and banked, and landed to great cheers from the crowd of mostly out-of-work men. It was beyond dreams that summer day that years later, I would sit with my own sons and watch a man land and walk on the moon, and that flying for my children and me would one day become a tiresome necessity.

On a far more important note, consider the advances in health care over the past 100 years. I was the fourth child in a five-child family, which had been reduced to a two-child family by the time I was 14. A sister Phyllis dead at 10-months of meningitis; a brother Douglas age five, the same disease; a brother Tom, 18, peritonitis. Those diseases can still be fatal, but not with the impunity of 100 years ago, when sanitation was not a high priority and our hospitals lacked the high standards demanded and, for the most part, met today.

I have only scratched the surface of the changes for the better in the close to 100 years I’ve managed to survive, aided considerably by love of friends and family, better diet than I could ever have hoped for and medical care I shall probably always complain about, but which I know is light years ahead of the best ever offered my original family.

In between the egg nogs and the Christmas cake nibbles, count your blessings. One hundred years ago we thought we had for ever to develop and harness our most spectacular inventions.

We were wrong, but I believe the young people of today are smarter at recognizing problems and correcting them than we have been. I believe they have accepted climate change scientific truths the majority of people of my century chose to ignore – and some still do.

And, in hope, I am reminded of a truth spoken to a friend by Samuel Johnson more than 200 years ago: “Depend upon on it,Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

“In The Midst of Life…We Are In Debt”

It was in October each year that my coal delivery business started to pick up. It was an all-day Saturday job for which my Uncle George Noon – married to my mother’s sister – paid me the equivalent of two dollars.

Uncle George owned and operated a small corner store offering canned and packaged food, a modest variety of cheeses, a good selection of vegetables and fruit – and coal.

The coal was stored in a huge backyard in mounds of various sizes and was sold by the “hundredweight” – which, if my memory holds true, was 112 pounds on an English weigh scale. Uncle George’s father – known to me as “granddad” – ran the Saturday coal yard. I was the delivery boy.

Most customers brought their own wheelbarrows, watched the scales as granddad weighed their coal, paid him in cash and rumbled off down the street. And, every Saturday, at least half-a-dozen elderly ladies or ageing men lacking their own wheelbarrows or being too old to handle a hundredweight of coal, would wander in to choose the size of coal they wanted – large lumps or “cobs.” Large lumps burn slower; smaller cobs burn brighter but disappear faster. Important decisions to be carefully made when coal fires are your only source of energy for warmth or cooking.

With decisions made, the coal would be sacked, placed in the company wheelbarrow – a four-wheeled brut – and I would clatter forth. Walking ahead would be the customer guiding me to their sometimes close sometimes blocks-away homes. There was no charge for delivery, and in the extremely harsh economic times of the 1930s, no tips for the delivery boy and, believe it or not, none expected.

At the end of the day, a meal would be shared with aunt, uncle and granddad – after the coal yard crew had scrubbed themselves clean. I would then trot home, my pay jingling in my pocket demanding to be spent. But, before I could launch myself to a Saturday night Tom Mix movie at “The Rex,” there had to be the equivalent of a fifty-cent deduction paid to my mother.

When I earned my first Saturday pay, I thought it a bit greedy and unfair that mother should chisel into my hard-earned cash. I was maybe 15 – a two-year coal delivery veteran – before I understood where my weekly fifty-cent contribution ended up. It was paid into a layaway plan down at the local co-op store. Mother always used the layaway plan to make sure Christmas was a decent celebration for her four children. Later she used it to buy family treats like radios and new clothes.

It was a simple system. You just paid a store to hold an object for you until you had enough saved to buy it outright. The reverse of the way we do things now where we take possession of goods and then decide if we can really afford them. And often discover when the bill arrives – we can’t.

It was pay as you go until emerging airlines started their seductive “fly now, pay later” campaign and the magic wands called credit cards provided immediate access to Ali Baba’s cave and treasures once available only to the cash-blessed rich.

The great slide into individual, family and government debt began then and continues to accelerate at alarming speed, encouraged by the bankers who make is so easy for us to spend beyond our means.

There was a time when we could look to government to take strong actions to halt the slide to ruin – or at least slow it down. But municipal, regional, provincial and federal governments long ago ceased to preach the benefits of a frugal way of life. Fearful of rejection if they deny their constituents what they know they can’t afford, they just raise – always “modestly” – taxes, to pay back loans made to buy goods and services we could live without.

In the early 1940s, American humorist Ethel Watts Mumford quipped: “In the midst of life we are in debt.” After a brief chuckle, we might sadly realize it is true – we are, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.

I don’t think my parents belonged to a miracle generation in the human parade. But I do believe they had a better approach to life, and that living without packing a burden of debt is far more conducive to family strength, well-being and general happiness than self-afflicted penury.

“In the Midst of Life…..we are in Dept”

It was in October each year that my coal delivery business started to pick up. It was an all day Saturday job for which my Uncle George Noon paid me the equivalent of two dollars. Married to my mother’s sister Uncle George owned and operated a small corner store offering canned and packaged food, a modest variety of cheeses, a good selection of vegetables and fruit – and coal.

The coal was stored in a huge backyard in mounds of various sizes and was sold by the “hundredweight” which if my memory holds true, was 112 pounds on an English weigh scale. Uncle George’s father – known to me as “granddad” – ran the Saturday coal yard. I was the delivery boy.

Most customers brought their own wheel barrows, watched the scales as granddad weighed their coal, paid him in cash and rumbled off down the street. And every Saturday at least half-a-dozen elderly ladies or aging men lacking their own wheelbarrows, or being too old to handle a hundredweight of coal, would wander in to choose the size of coal they wanted – large lumps or “cobs”.  Large lumps burn slower, smaller cobs burn brighter but disappear faster. Important decisions to be carefully made when coal fires are your only source of energy for warmth or cooking.

With decisions made the coal would be sacked, placed in the company wheelbarrow, a four-wheeled brute, and I would clatter forth. Walking ahead would be the customer guiding me to their sometimes close sometimes blocks-away homes. There was no charge for delivery and in the extremely harsh economic times of the 1930’s no tips for the delivery boy and, believe it or not, none expected.

At the end of the day a meal would be shared with aunt, uncle and granddad – after the coal-yard crew had scrubbed themselves clean. I would then trot home my pay jingling in my pocket demanding to be spent. But before I could launch myself to a Saturday night Tom Mix movie at “The Rex” there had to be the equivalent of a fifty cent deduction paid to my mother.

When I earned my first Saturday pay I thought it a bit greedy and unfair that mother should chisel into my hard earned cash. I was maybe 15 – a two year coal delivery veteran – before I understood where my weekly fifty cent contribution ended up. It was paid into a Layaway plan down at the local Co-op store. Mother always used the Layaway plan to make sure Christmas was a decent celebration for her four children. Later she used it to buy family treats like radios and new clothes.

 It was a simple system. You just paid a store to hold an object for you until you had enough saved to buy it outright. The reverse of the way we do things now where we take possession of goods – then decide if we can really afford them. And often discover when the bill arrives — we can’t.

It was pay as you go until emerging airlines started their seductive “fly now, pay later” campaign and the magic wands called credit cards provided immediate access to Ali Barba’s cave and treasures once available only to the cash blessed rich.

The great slide into individual, family and government debt began then and continues to accelerate at alarming speed, encouraged by the bankers who make is so easy for us to spend beyond our means.

 There was a time when we could look to government to take strong actions to halt the slide to ruin – or at least slow it down. But municipal, regional, provincial and federal governments long ago ceased to preach the benefits of a frugal way of life. Fearful of rejection if they deny their constituents what they know they can’t afford they just raise, always “modestly”, taxes to pay back loans made to buy goods and services we could live without.

In the early 1940’s American humorist Ethel Watts Mumford quipped “In the midst of life we are in debt” and after a brief chuckle at the pun we might sadly realise it is true – we are. And we have no one to blame but ourselves.

I don’t think my parents belonged to a miracle generation in the human parade. But I do think they had a better approach to life, and that living without packing a burden of debt is far more conducive to family strength, well being and general happiness than self created penury.

The Other “Day Of Infamy”

It was just before eight o’clock on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, when Japanese warplanes struck Pearl Harbour. A “day of infamy” well remembered every year since.

Not so well remembered is the fact that as Japanese bombers launched their attack on Hawaii, other squadrons sporting the “Rising Sun” emblem were thundering over Hong Kong to launch a campaign that would lead to the death or capture of 1,975 young Canadians. They were the men and the women, mostly nurses, of ‘C’ Force” destined to die, be wounded or taken prisoner and brutally treated in the brief battle for Hong Kong.

‘C’-Force – outnumbered, out-gunned, out-supplied, out-maneuvered, defending a position Winston Churchill had said could never be adequately defended – surrendered to the full might of the Japanese army 18-days later, on Christmas Day. 

On November 27, the 1,975-strong ‘C’ Force had marched proudly through the streets of Vancouver from their train to the docks to board two transports for an unknown destination. Their ships – the HMT Awatea, a converted passenger liner, and HMCS Prince Robert – sailed at 9:30 p.m., but not happily.

Official logs record a mini-rebellion onboard Awatea. HMCS Prince Robert, officially the armed escort for the transpacific trip, took her station without comment and the Awatea disturbance was played down as the unhappiness of 30 or 40 new recruits from the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles who “didn’t understand conditions would improve.”

Years later rank and file soldiers recalled unpleasant below-deck accommodations with the first dinner served on board described as an appalling version of tripe and onions. In protest, a group of soldiers had tried to disembark. It took removal of the gangplank to stop them – and “restraint by force” of the unhappy diners.

The Winnipeg Grenadiers, forming the bulk of ‘C’ Force, had just ended 16-months of prized, laid-back garrison duty in Jamaica when, with the contingent from the Royal Rifles, they were arbitrarily ordered to their mystery destination.

After a brief stop at Pearl Harbour, in still neutral Honolulu, the men were told their destination was Hong Kong, where they would boost British forces already at war with Japan. ‘C’ Force reached Hong Kong on November 16. Enroute there had been lectures on what to expect when Japan attacked the Colony. They ranged from the possibility of “another Dunkirk” to morale-boosting stories that all Japanese soldiers were “myopic dwarves who wore thick horn-rimmed glasses and shrank from close combat … that their pilots were sloppy, flew wooden aircraft and would be easy targets.”

When they disembarked, 17-year-old Ken Cambon of the Royal Rifles recalled: “The sun shone, but not oppressively, in a cloudless sky. Our battalion marched down Nathan Road, steel helmeted and obviously invincible … The streets were lined with cheering crowds waving small union jacks.” Winston Churchill had said Hong Kong was not defendable, but the crowds that day chose to believe other military leaders who had insisted the Canadian and other troops already there could withstand any attack.

And, for a few weeks, the illusion seemed the reality. Then came the Pearl Harbour and Hong Kong December 7 and 8 air attacks and the land assault on Hong Kong. The attacking force of 50,000 battle-hardened Japanese soldiers outnumbered the defenders 50 to one and out-gunned them in every phase of warfare.

On December 13, Private John Gray, 21, from Manitoba, became the first Canadian soldier to die in combat in WW2 when he was captured and executed.

It was during the battle for Hong Kong that 42-year-old Grenadier Sgt. Major John Robert Osborn threw himself on a live grenade to protect his men. He was awarded the Victoria Cross.

On Christmas Day, it was over; the Colony surrendered. There were 290 Canadians dead, many of them executed after capture. On Christmas Day morning 60 wounded men and their nurses were bayoneted or shot at the St Stephen’s College field hospital.

Years later, inquiries into those halcyon pre-Hong Kong battle days acknowledged the troops shipping out of Vancouver to defend Hong Kong in 1941 were poorly trained, ill-equipped and officially termed “unfit for combat.” A more honest army confession would have been “untrained for combat.”

So unprepared were they that, when the ships sailed, a great deal of equipment was left on the dock in Vancouver. Astonishingly, decades later, it was revealed that 212 vehicles were required to service ‘C’ Force, but there was room on board for only 20.

Post-war inquiries revealed that, while drills were conducted at sea, “regular weapons were in limited supply.” Post-war, it was noted that few had ever fired a gun with intent to kill, and most had never fired a gun at all.

Of the Grenadiers and Rifles taken prisoner, 264 died in POW camps; only 1,421 eventually came home emaciated, sick and with memories of horrors beyond understanding.

While we “remember Pearl Harbour,” we should never forget Hong Kong and the time we so carelessly sent so many of our young people into harm’s way.

(Recommended reading: ‘C’ Force to Hong Kong – a Canadian catastrophe by Brereton Greenhaus; VC citation for Sgt. Major Osborne)