The World Is Still Waiting

It wasn’t until 2015 that descendants of former and long-dead British slave owners received final payments in compensation for their ancestral financial “losses” in 1837. That was the year the United Kingdom signed into being the Slave Compensation Act and established the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave Owners.

And, yes, it did take quite a while.

The British had been in the slave trade for centuries before “ownership” of one human being by another became recognized symbols of wealth and arrogance. And, when they formed a colony in far off America, they encouraged the early settlers to look across the ocean to Africa for a labour force easily, if brutally, recruited, and shipped in shackles to cheaply fulfill the needs of ever-larger plantations growing cotton and tobacco.

It is estimated that, from start to finish, close to 13 million slaves were captured for shipment to the American and Caribbean colonies. That is before, during, and after the great rebellion which saw the American colonists rebel at tax increases and sever family relations with the Brits.

In the process, the English – slave traders since time began, moved into a period of enlightenment which led to the abolition of one man or one family owning another. Amazingly, in freeing all slaves owned by the English, like plantation owners, the government piously agreed to a compensation package to make sure no one who owned slaves suffered a financial loss.

Under the law signed Dec. 23, 1837, English slave owners would be compensated for their losses. And the now freed slaves? Ah, yes, well, it seems that they were expected to be so pleased with freedom they wouldn’t expect more.

Readers with a thirst for detailed money trails can find guidance from Wikipedia and a conclusion I accept without serious challenge: “This 1837 (Slavery Abolition) Act paid substantial money to the former slave owners, but nothing to the newly liberated people.”

It is difficult to believe in 2020 that the freed slaves under English law in 1837 would regard that “gift” of freedom and equality as more welcome than cash. It pains us when we hear the cry “Black Lives Matter” – a continuing cry for justice – still echoing on the streets of our neighbours.

The National Archives of the UK tell many a horror story of slavery before the Brits decided it was time to change their old ways and attitudes. On the small Leeward Islands on the old British Colony at Dominica the court records are brief, concise:

“1814, January 15. Pierre. Attempting to return to runaways with provisions and having (himself) been a runaway (for) two months. To be hanged. Head cut off and put on a pole.”

“1814: January 15-16: Peter. Exciting a mutiny among 20 negroes of the estate and harvesting them with provisions while runaways. To be hanged. Head cut off and put on a pole.

“Rachel: 30 lashes. To be worked in chains 3 months. Received 30 lashes and released to owner.” Stealing food was a cardinal sin

There were 3,000 British slave owners; most were on the seemingly endless list of brutal actions against men and women seeking only the basic qualities of freedom.

One of the thousands was widow Hannah Barnes of Barton Cottage Dawlish, Devon, England who had an annuity of 400 pounds from her late husband’s a Cumberland Estate in Jamaica. She had inherited ownership of nine slaves in Kingston, the capital of the island. She needed more to maintain her life style.

It was in 1835 that she appealed to the Commissioners of Slave Compensation: “I, my daughter and her children, are entirely dependent for support on what we receive from my late husband’s estate; that in consequence of the non-receipt of our remittance for many months past I am much in want of money.”

It has been estimated by the men and women who track such events that at least 3,000 British slave owners have received 20 million pounds ($1.8 billion in today’s currency) since 1833. And if you ever paid any taxes in the UK before 2015, the old slavers thank you.

On April 16, 1862, some 30 years after British reformers abolished slavery, with a hefty compensation program, USA President Abraham Lincoln followed. It had taken a bloody civil war between brothers to amend the United States much revered Constitution to read “all men are create equal” but Lincoln did it

Like the English they offered compensation to their 900 USA registered slave owners of $300 a slave. They accepted the money, but as a nation had difficulty in accepting the fact that reciting “all men are created equal” doesn’t make it so.

And still do.

A Canada Day Worth Remembering

It was a strange sight deep in the heart of rural France. Barely fluttering from a tall weather-beaten flagpole was an immaculately laundered Canadian flag. In September 1976 – our flag being a mere 11 years old – it was a wonderful sight to see even if it wasn’t close to July 1 Dominion Day (1879) which became became Canada Day in July 1982.

I almost missed it as we pulled out of Chaumousey, one of the many colourful villages scattered across the Vosges range in eastern France. During the Second World War, it was on the direct route as the Allies – the United States Fifth Army and the French First Army – drove across France to cross the River Rhine and penetrate into the heart of Hitler’s Germany.

We were driving from Vienna to Paris, looking for nothing in particular, everything in general. The Maple Leaf, flying alone atop a very tall flagpole deep in rural France demanded a pause in plans. There were questions to be asked, answers to be sought.

I did a quick U-turn to drift back to Chaumousey, which isn’t far from Epinal, where 5,255 white crosses stand in vast mute testimony to U.S. battle deaths. In comparison, the cemetery at Chaumousey was postage stamp size, a final resting place for generations of villagers with not much room for mass intrusions.

But the villagers had found room for the graves of six members of the crew of Lancaster bomber III PB253 UL-A2 of Royal Air Force Squadron 576. They lie side by side in one special manicured grave, placed there by the villagers on July 29, 1944, when their aircraft was shot down by German night fighters. Only the pilot, Flying Officer Jimmy Archibald of the New Zealand Air Force, survived the mid-air explosion that blew him through the flight deck windows leaving him with just enough instinct to pull his parachute ripcord.

He was later found hanging in a tree, with multiple fractures and internal injuries. He was rescued by German troops, taken to a German hospital, and eventually returned to England after liberation by U.S. troops.

The six dead were left for the people of Chaumousey to bury. Five were English; one was Flying Officer Peter Joseph Biollo, a 20-year-old from Edmonton, and the lone Canadian in the crew.

The Maple Leaf flew for him the day I drove by in 1976. For reasons village historians cannot explain, it is the only foreign flag to fly over the gravesite. In Chaumousey, it remains where “the Canadian bomber crashed and where the Canadian airman is buried.”

A letter written in September 1945 by Abbe Albert Mercier, parish priest of Chaumousey, provided details of the July 31, 1944 funeral service for the crew: “A very large … number of people formed the funeral procession of these heroes whose caskets were covered with flowers and, in spite of the interdiction of the Germans, the big crowd went to the cemetery and joined in the final prayers at the graves.”

I have always wondered what the “interdiction of the Germans” was in 1944 when their thousand-year empire was in disastrous collapse. Not pleasant I suspect.

Today, I wonder if Chaumousey still holds memorial services for the crew of PB253 and still flies the Maple Leaf as it was so proudly continuing to do in 1976 “for the Canadian” when we paused so briefly to stand in the awe and pride the Maple Leaf can command when seen so far from home in such respectful cause.

In Nanton, Alberta, they have an aircraft museum boasting a fully re-built Lancaster bomber. Inscribed on the Bomber Command Memorial Wall are a few words from Father J.P. Lardie, Chaplain 419/428 Squadron RCAF.

“Three thousand miles across a hunted ocean they came, wearing on the shoulder of their tunics the treasured name – Canada – telling the world their origin. Young men and women they were, some still in their teens, fashioned by their Maker to love, not to kill, but proud and earnest in their mission to stand, and if it had to be, to die, for their country and for freedom …”

The old folk of Chaumousey would say “amen” to that and let their children tell the story of why, for a few days in late September, the Maple Leaf  still flies high and proud over “their” Canadian grave.

A World Turned Upside Down

When British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his army to General George Washington at Yorktown in 1781, he wanted to leave the field of battle in smart moving formation, but Washington turned down his choice of marching music. He did accept a second choice and history records the defeated British Army left the field, not to a smart stepping military piece but to the subdued, even sombre, tones of an old song The World Turned Upside Down.

Whether by design or accident, it proved to be an accurate theme for the birth and early history of the United States of America. And, it could be re-played today without serious challenge as the foundations of the nation – laid with such hopeful promise close to 240 years ago – tremble as the Republic is threatened again. The world was then and is today turned upside down.

In recent days, the statue of first USA president, General Washington, was toppled from its historic pedestal, besmirched with muck, and daubed with paint and badly written insults. He is not the first American hero to be ripped from a place of honour. Privately, Washington supported abolition, but carefully. He once told members of his cabinet he feared eventual conflict between northern and southern states and warned should that happen he would support abolition. But, he still owned a hundred or more slaves to work his farmland. Many were buried in unmarked graves on his land. Historians say he treated them well in life and his will granted all of them their freedom when he died.

But, Wikipedia states: “There is no indication Washington ever favoured an immediate end to slavery. His abolitionist aspirations were confined to the hope that slavery would disappear naturally over time.”

One of the first American heroes once revered and then irreverently removed from a place of high honour was General Robert E. Lee. He was the man who led the Confederate Army in the great Civil War that would decide whether slavery should continue as a flourishing, brutal business or be ended with emancipation guaranteeing equality of life for all U.S. citizens as promised by then-president Abraham Lincoln.

Lee was an ardent defender of the right of white citizens to buy and own black slaves. They were citizens of South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas and joined later by Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee. The Confederate States lost the four-year (1861-65) blood bath and eventually lost their right to own other human beings as slaves.

But many have never given up the belief that black people are, by virtue of being black, inferior. And that white men, who fought and died for the right to own slaves, are deserving of something close to sainthood. Confederate soldiers were honoured with statues and shrines and the old Confederate flag continued to fly in many of the Confederate States.

The campaign for equality is being waged more stridently than ever been these days – and the possibility of success is more encouraging than ever.

It was in June 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, that Dylan Roof, 21, entered the Emmanuel African Methodist Church, joined a prayer group and pulled a handgun to shoot and kill nine worshippers as they held hands in prayer. Roof was captured, tried, found guilty and remains in prison.

Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans at the time, decided strong action was required to awaken a public that seemed to be increasingly indifferent to Roof’’s murder spree, his trial and punishment. He decided to remove from a place of prominence a magnificent statue of General Lee, triumphant on his battle horse, defeated in a cruel Civil War, but still a warrior to be publicly admired. It took Mayor Landrieu two years to remove Lee and his horse. In a comprehensive report published this month in Vanity Fair, the former mayor was asked if seeing more statues being banished pleased him: “No. It makes me feel sad, actually, that it

took so long. There is no defence for having a monument in a place of reverence to a person who fought to destroy the country in order to preserve slavery.” 

Mayor Landrieu didn’t stop with a single action. After leaving the mayor’s office in 2018 he has travelled the country to talk about being “divided by design” and the confidence he has that the current wave of “Black Lives Matter” mass protests signify “a change is coming.”

We can hope so. It’s been a long and often bloody wait for an answer, in a world turned upside down, to a question we should never need to ask.

No Eye To Pity – No Arm To Save

Those of us who were around in the 1980s and old enough to be paying attention may recall a brief eyebrow-raising moment when we read in our daily newspaper that our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, had lost his seat on the prestigious United Nations Security Council. Eyebrows were probably raised again a few days ago when we read PM Justin Trudeau’s bid to recapture the seat had failed.

For the sake of accuracy, I should write “Canada’s seat” and note that it had been earned – won if you like – by an earlier First Minister Mike Pearson. He was the Canadian leader who joined a handful of power brokers to bring a shattered world out of the darkness of the Second World War into “the sunny uplands” of the peace upheld by the Security Council of the United Nations.

The United Nations was a dream then, and remains a dream today, hard to capture, even harder to hold, especially if you lean toward dullness as PM Harper did so often. If he cared about losing Canada’s seat at the most powerful Security Council table to Portugal, he didn’t show it.

To be fair, neither did the procession of PMs who followed him. Between 1979 and 1993 we had Joe Clark, Pierre Trudeau (back for a second time), John Turner, Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell, and Jean Chretien. Two of them broke records to be remembered but not for great triumphs. Kim Campbell came close to superheroine status as the first female PM but survived for only six months; John Turner racked up only a few days more than two and a half months and holds the distinction of being the only PM to never sit in the House while in session.

Canada bumbled along building on Lester B. Pearson’s peacemaker model which saw Canada’s armed forces shipped to trouble spots around the world to maintain law and order. They were proud years for the nation, with red and white bars and the Maple leaf prominent on the white bar; fluttering from a tall pole or stuck on a battered rucksack or lapel button miniature. They made us feel welcome and we were proud.

But, as with most good things, times changed, and as the new Millennium edged its way into our lives the image of Canada as peacekeeper started to fade. The Harper Conservatives had different spending priorities; the army, navy, and air force suffered.

For more than 40 years, Canada had shipped 80,000 trained personnel around the world on peacekeeping missions. The success rate was high, but each mission seemed a little more expensive than the last. And, there was a growing danger that the Canadian “peace police” were being maneuvered into taking sides.

In the mid-1990s, Somalia became a troubled hot spot with rival tribes vying for control. Already plagued by drought and famine with rival tribes raiding and killing rival villagers for their meager food supplies, strong countermeasures seemed called for from the UN.

Canada’s answer was to call on the elite Canadian Airborne Regiment. A Battalion-sized force 1,400 strong from the battle-trained parachute brigade, hit the ground in Somalia in December 1992. Its assignment seemed clear: Bring order to the area. Convoy food and medical supplies to where they were required and make sure they got to people who needed them not the tribal leaders who filled their own food needs then sold what was left at exorbitant prices,

It would be years before details on how those orders were carried out were made public. Readers will find a calm telling of the story via Google – Somalia Affair/The Canadian Encyclopedia. My warning that it is unpleasant reading, is not given lightly.

Canada’s “best of the best” soldiers had a novel trap to catch thieves. They placed food and drink just inside the wire perimeter base with an easy to spot gap in the wire. One night they arrested a 16-year-old lad in the act of stealing the food.

Arrested in the act it was later admitted at trial the boy was … “tied up and beaten and tortured … the soles of his feet burned with a cigarillo … his shins struck with an iron bar as he pleaded with the soldiers to stop … crying “Canada, Canada, Canada … he was dead by morning … Much of his suffering was photographed by his abusers.”

Among them were Master Corporal Clayton Matchee and Private Kyle Brown. Three days after his arrest, Matchee attempted to hang himself with his shoelaces but succeeded only in permanently damaging his brain. He never left hospital. Brown was tried, found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in jail but was released after less than two years. Only one officer was ever charged with a minor offence of “encouraging a culture of aggression.”

In November 1994, then Prime Minister Chretien ordered the disbandment of the entire Canadian Airborne Regiment. In 1995, a Commission of Inquiry into the deployment of Canadian Forces to Somalia commenced hearings – mostly televised. Military historian David Bercuson called it “the darkest era in the history of the Canadian military since the Second World War.”

Then toward the end of 1996, Chretien abruptly shut down the inquiry saying the people had lost interest and declining further comment.

Maybe he was right and still is, but there are also a lot of people in this world who don’t like unfinished business. It could be that some of them know that the “final report” of the Chretien commission in the summer of ’97 was not final at all but was, as Canadian Encyclopedia describes it, “an incomplete accounting of the scandal because the $25 million inquiry was shut down before it had even investigated the details of the actual atrocities in Somalia. As a result, the report focuses mainly on what it considered to be the institutional failures of the armed forces that led to those crimes, and what is described as a cover-up by military leaders.”

I’m sure many representatives of small countries voting last week at the UN had read every word there is to read on the Somalia Affair with special attention to the “evasion and deceptions which were apparent with many of the senior officers who testified before us (and) reveal much about the poor state of leadership in our armed forces and the careerist mentality that prevails at the Department of National Defence.”

And if they read that just before they voted on the Security Council seat – no wonder the UN delegates opted for Norway and Ireland. Canada and its peacekeepers got lost somewhere along the way.

Trump -The Antithetical

It didn’t take long to clear the placard-waving, chanting crowd from Lafayette Square and neighbouring streets on the first day of June. The small park in Washington DC is close to the White House and just a short walk from the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, better known as “The Church of the Presidents.”

Since the early 1800s, when the church was built, all but one sitting president has attended services at St. John’s or just dropped in to sit quietly and maybe ask for guidance in affairs of state.

And, on June 1st, President Donald Trump needed St. John’s, not for worship or prayer – but simply as a backdrop for what he felt would be an uplifting speech for a nation being ripped apart by dissent.

With a cluster of sycophants, the president strolled the now-empty street. As his ego demanded, he was a few steps ahead of the group until they reached an official St. John’s notice board with an outer wall of the church as background.

He stood for a moment, trying hard to convert a smirky grin into his version of a confident leader’s smile. In his right hand, the president held a book but didn’t open it. His support group shuffled to one side, knowing better than to intrude even peripherally when the king is on camera.

The cameraman capturing this shameful photographic opportunity was filming a rehearsed vanity in praise of Trump. He may also have been shooting the opening of one of the final chapters marking the fall from grace of a once-great nation – the United States of America.

It has never been acknowledged who ordered the small army of police officers, secret service personnel and fully armed National Guard soldiers to charge the crowd in Washington on June 1st. But, charge they did with nightsticks and batons swinging, shields used as battering rams.

Stunned by the ferocity of the charge, the crowd fell back as smoke, tear gas, pepper balls, and a few high-noise density firecrackers burst among them. If protesters fell or were knocked down, other protesters carried them away or tried to drag them from the path of the advancing juggernaut.

When the street was proclaimed safe, and President Trump did his victory stroll to St. John’s Church, his public relations department termed it “a brave walk” with a Winston Churchill look. They have no shame.

Neither does President Trump who laced his mini-speech at St. John’s – and later on Twitter – with a promise of more militant solutions to protest marchers. He was really a man of peace, a law and order man and would settle dissent. The people wanted calm, he said, and he would bring it even if it took trained soldiers to achieve his aims.

Suppression by force of arms is the ultimate solution in his playbook. When the message was delivered outside St. John, the president and his acquiescent ego-chamber strolled back to the well-protected White House.

I leave it to the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, Mariann Budde, to politely comment on the June 1st decision to drive protesters from the streets. The bishop said it was wrong to use tear gas and other weaponry “as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.”

“Antithetical” was a new word to me. The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides this definition: “Being in direct and unequivocal opposition: directly opposite.”


“Here Mate, Let Me Help…”

It’s 5 p.m., a bright warm promise of a summer evening. The spacious courtyard approach to the main entrance to Victoria General Hospital has a clean-swept deserted look. A few well-washed wooden benches where patients with mobility can sit and converse with visiting family are empty in the sun.

Well, not quite empty. One man and two women are sitting far apart waiting for friends, or maybe they’re staffers taking a well-earned break from the pressure cooker of a large general hospital in pandemic times.

The glass entrance doors hiss open and clank shut as the three, their sun break over, precede me into the main lobby where their identity as patient or staff is confirmed. A nod from security staff, followed by what has become the ritual washing of hands with germ-killing lotions, and they are on their way down the long corridors to wherever they belong in the hospital labyrinth.

I bring up the rear to answer a brief, polite questioning. Do I have a temperature? Have I travelled outside Canada in recent weeks? Have I been in the company of anyone known to be inflected to COVID-19? Half-a-dozen other easy-to-answer questions from runny nose to routine feeling unwell follow, and my negative responses lead to the final: “Are you here to visit someone or as an outpatient?” I respond: “The latter and looking for directions to Medical Imaging.”

Then comes the wash hands routine and, as I’m already wearing a mask, I’m on my way “down the main corridor, past the gift shop, keep walking until you see the electronic imaging sign. It’s clearly marked.” It is, and I’m right on time – 20 minutes ahead of my 5:30 appointment.

Check-in is simple once I can flash my relatively new BC Services Card issued a few months back when I “surrendered” my treasured driver’s licence for the BC Services Card and my new BC Identity Card.

Waved through to a waiting room across a corridor lined with patients on beds or stretchers, I carelessly dropped my wallet spilling ID cards across the floor. For a 96.6-year-old, that spells disaster because the floor is no longer as close as it used to be. There was a time, and not so long ago, that I would have just bent over, scooped the wandering cards up and carried on. Alas, the floor these days is a long way away, and any attempt to reach it, slowly or in haste, is extremely hazardous.

As I contemplate the scene, there’s a stirring in one of the corridor beds where a young man waits to be moved for treatment or a procedure. Before I can make what would surely be a disastrous lurch, he rolls off his bed, takes three or four steps and says very quietly: “Here, mate, let me help you,” and with one motion swoops down, picks up the straying cards and is back in his bed before his attendant knows he’s been up and about.

I have to pass his bed to get to my rendezvous with the imaging machine scheduled to take an inside look at a lung that tends to misbehave with COPD. It gives me time to thank him for his kind help. “No problem, mate. A pleasure to be able to help.” 

“Stay well,” I say. “You too, mate,” he replies with a face-wide, genuinely joyful grin. 

I wanted to share this story today in the hope that in this vastly troubled world we find ourselves living in, it might just bring readers a little of the joy it brought me. Just a vignette, the briefest of scenes, but we can dream that one day it might become as contagious as COVID-19.

It’s Just Inconvenient Not a Punishment

So, you’re feeling a twinge of cabin fever? A little frustrated that you can’t get up and wander where you want when you want, hold hands, hug a friend, sip a pint of tea, coffee or whatever, and solve personal and world problems better than using Twitter or a Facebook post.

Not to worry, you’ll find yourself back to what your normal was before the world spins off the rails. It shouldn’t take more than a year or two – and that’s less than a teardrop in the large bucket called “time.” Ah, yes, dear souls, it isn’t anguish we are going through in 2020 – it’s inconvenience. And inconvenience becomes downright discomfiting when it disturbs the comfortable pew of life we treasured and called normal.

Quite amazing, really. We have grown up from our earliest days learning about nations that became countries – prosperous, strong, and selfishly all-powerful, only to implode at the height of their power – and collapse. Never believing it could ever happen to the place where we live.

From the pyramids of the Egyptians and the Aztecs; from the amphitheatres of Rome and multitude of shrines to Greek gods, we read in wonderment of their achievements. And, if we have been fortunate enough to travel and witness those towering monuments to the greatest of empires, we have always wondered, and still do: What happened?

But do we ever wonder what the citizens were thinking as their nation world turned upside down? I read somewhere recently – and apologize for failing to note the author’s name: “Many generations have thought the world was dying, but it was only THEIR world which was dying.”

Greek, Aztec, Egyptian, Roman – all conquerors of the world they knew; Empires that flourished then died. In my lifetime, I have witnessed the creation and collapse of the Soviet Socialist Republics (Russia) and the break-up of the British Empire.

Both remain recognized on the world stage and are treated with respect, but their right to world empire status died long ago. And the world keeps turning even as China – an old Empire that seemed to die centuries ago – has emerged to challenge the USA’s world leadership role.

For the past four years. Canadians have been watching with fidgeting discomfort the antics of President Donald Trump as he theatrically degraded the U.S. from class act to bad vaudeville.

And, while we sat watching and hoping to see Humpty Dumpty fall off the wall, along came COVID-19 and lock-down, shut-down, face masks, virus checks, social distancing and a myriad of other annoying rules and regulations to set normally placid Canadians mumbling in their beer.

Just damned inconvenient, that’s what it is. Having to sit and watch – not even able to hold hands – while a plague runs rampant just across the border and Pied Piper Trump leads his nation into chaos.

The medical experts, who so far have served us well, tell us it could be this fall before the world has a medicine powerful enough to stop COVID-19, and maybe a year after that to be sure we have a winner. 

That’s a long time. Time enough to adjust and correct some of the bad living habits we have acquired. Time to accept and adapt to inconvenience. It is not the end of the world.

Ancient Traditions; New Dreams

The native war canoes swept across Victoria’s Harbour, synchronized paddles flashing as they moved through the narrows now spanned by the Johnson Street Bridge, across the Inner Harbour and then through “the Gorge” to the calm of its inland Gorge Waterway and a picnic end to the day.

Leading this First Nations procession and providing the perfect paddle-beat was a slow-speed launch carrying a military band dressed in the costume of early traders and explorers of the 1700s.

In the lead Canoe were the Nitinaht, the paddlers dressed in white. Then came the Clo-oose in light blue; the Malahat wearing pink; then West Saanich and Quamichan – each wearing yellow. Close behind came the Khenipsen in green then Kuper Island, dark blue. The Tsawout of South Saanich sporting blue and yellow were followed by Nanaimo in red and white.

Also included were three canoes billed simply as two “Americans” – one wearing green and white, the other pink and yellow and a “Clam-Clam-A-Litz” in red and green.

Following the war canoes was a motor launch carrying Sir Robert Kindersley, Governor of the Hudson Bay Company; his wife; and a gaggle of HBC head office types out west to celebrate the company’s 250th founding anniversary – and taking a look at its latest western Canada development, a brand-new department store.

It was May 1920, and for Victoria, a visit from HBC’s head honcho, who was also a Knight of the Realm, was as close as local toffs could get to royal celebrations without having to say “Your Majesty.”

The First World War and Canada’s military record in France, at sea and in the air, had done much to move Canada from the role of remote country cousin to solid, loyal member of the British Commonwealth family. And no province cherished that growing up more than Canada’s far western outpost which, despite frequent cries for change, clung to the British in its provincial name and its Queen’s name – Victoria – for the capital city.

When Sir Robert and Lady Kindersley were later welcomed to Government House for a private dinner with 40 guests, I’m sure Sir Robert and his wife would have felt right at home. With his grand, new, company store looking for a fair slice of a growing city’s prosperity, all the stops would have been pulled.

In addition to the war canoe procession – a grand spectacle in its own right –the traditional Victoria Day parade stretching “more than two miles” and jammed with marching bands, floats – and new-fangled motor vehicles – had jammed city streets.

It was during Sir Robert’s visit that the Vancouver Island Automobile Club organized an adventurous “motor excursion” from Victoria City Hall to Elk Lake. There had been talk afoot about taxpayers buying Elk and Beaver lakes and preserving the area in perpetuity.

The Colonist newspaper reported that 40 residents signed up for “the excursion” but didn’t specify whether that meant 40 cars and drivers or 10 cars with a driver and three passengers. Whatever, it was by all accounts a great success leaving city hall at 2:30 p.m. precisely and traversing “the seven miles to Elk Lake in little over 20 minutes.”

The dream was never wholly fulfilled, but the primary goal of preserving Elk and Beaver lakes for future generations was. And, when urban families are again able to swarm their beaches for summer’s traditional activities, they might whisper a thank you to the folks who, 100 years ago, thought of the future.

What part of the original Elk -Beaver Lake park plan never made the final cut? The original plan saw Elk Lake developed for recreation; great beaches, a bit of fishing and boating, with Beaver Lake proposed as the ideal site for a swimming pool complex.

The swimming pool complex for Beaver never made the map when the property became the fantastic park it is today. I wonder how many, if any, residents or visitors swimming at the modern Commonwealth Pools out Royal Oak way know they are but a hefty stones throw from Beaver Lake where the original dreamers had hoped to see them. Not on the original plan – but close enough to claim a credit.

Final thoughts: That must have been a spectacular sight 100 years ago to watch a dozen or more 40-foot war canoes driving through the ocean, keeping the pride and traditions of their ancestors alive.

It all happened three years before I was born. But I feel quite privileged to have been allowed to wander half a world away from my birth-home and be invited to witness the survival of thousand year old native legends, and the birth of dreams a hundred years ago.

And I wonder what the writers of 2120 will have to say about my generations “gifts” to their way of life?

Still Searching For Answers

It was 1869 when two sisters described as “middle-class school teachers” were declared insane and by court order, removed from Victoria’s 10-year-old hospital – The Royal – better known as “the Asylum,” a health care facility with accommodation for a handful of patients suffering what the doctors of the day called “routine” afflictions.

The “hospital” was a two-storey building, and administrators were stressed to the limit trying to provide separate accommodation for male and female patients, “different” accommodation for patients of Chinese descent, and meeting what they regarded as the impossible demand to provide beds and care for “maniacs.”

We should spend a sentence or two with the Chinese problem because it is so difficult to believe. Affluent citizens in the 1800s and well into the 1900s hired servants of Chinese descent to clean their homes and do their laundry, their cooking, and everything else that contributed to good health practices – but couldn’t share a hospital ward with them because, well, they were not white.

The white people felt themselves to be cleaner, morally superior and deserving of softer pillows and better care than the Chinese.

Amazing but true. 

The Chinese and “the whites” did agree on one thing: That maniacs, the crazy people, should not expect, or get, the same care and hospital attention as the “normal” sick.

And, that brings me back to the sisters mentioned in my opening paragraph, “teachers of the middle class and deemed insane.” They were ordered to be transferred from Victoria’s hospital, certified as “insane,” and incarcerated in the Victoria City jail – with the key presumably thrown away. 

The charge against them? “These insane ladies were noisy and physically violent, and one refused to wear any clothing (so) they were kept locked in a bare brick cell in the Victoria City jail (and here’s a key phrase) with only male staff supervision.”

But there was a third sister who took up the battle on behalf of her siblings, challenged the touted “respectability” of Victoria citizens and drew commanding attention to the almost total lack of care for mentally impaired citizens. She mounted a letter-writing campaign to the press appealing for common decency and the need for women to be looking after her afflicted sisters.

Public hearings followed with resignations of old hospital officials, and, in 1873, the passing of the BC Insane Asylum Act as a shocked public forced subsequent governments to seek solutions for the care of the mentally ill. It has never been a pleasant battleground. As recently as 1901, psychiatric literature in BC still listed the causes of insanity as “hereditary, intemperance, syphilis and masturbation.”

How to handle the mentally sick among us would continue to be a significant problem. In 1904, the government thought it was on the way to a solution when it purchased 405 hectares of land in New Westminster-Coquitlam (including Colony Farm) for the construction of a new therapeutic centre for the mentally ill. In 1913, it opened its first ward – the Male Chronic Building. It is not a record to boast about, but within a month, it was filled with 900 patients, double its planned capacity.

Colony Farm was part of what was now known as Riverview, a central model of psychiatric health care quickly named internationally as one of the most progressive asylums in North America. Its patients worked the grounds, and at its peak produced up to 700 tonnes of crops and 20,000 gallons of milk a year.

But the idea of big hospitals and institutions was losing favour as various regions of the province sought solutions “closer to home” populations. In 1998, the government announced plans to close Riverview, but two years later said a new 20-bed unit would be built to house patients who found it difficult to obtain treatment in home area residential centres.

In 2000, Riverview and the provincial government were attacked for the hospital’s use of controversial electroshock therapy. The dispute led to the resignation of the president of the medical staff who had fought against the practice. The same year a group of former patients launched a lawsuit claiming male and female patients had been illegally sterilized between 1933 and 1968. Evidence revealed 200 patients had been sterilized. Nine women received settlement totalling $450,000.

Most of the land today is included in a land claim by the Kwikwetlem Nation and is recognized provincially as a botanical garden and architectural heritage site. Some old buildings are still in use by private companies, others stand empty like acid tears shed for a worthy cause that went awry.

And the problems of how to best handle the mentally fragile among us remains unanswered. If a fully modern care facility staffed with the finest mental health advice and backed by a working food-producing farm isn’t the answer – what could be? Not unsanitary instant – hovel tent shambles disgracing boulevards and parks. And surely not the unused rooms of basic motels built primarily for overnight stays not for extended stays.

(The Internet is jammed with stories pre-Riverview and the Colony Farm; stories of enlightenment and ignorance, hope and regret, fear of the mentally ill, and the discomfort many of us still feel in its presence. The history of Psychiatric Nursing in BC provides a useful timeline on the long battle for a better way in BC. So does Riverview Hospital a brief history/CBC News. And with “Society, Place, Work –The BC Public Hospital for the Insane” BC Studies, autumn 2011, provides its usual excellence research.)

I have no suggestions, but welcome yours.

Who Will Win Patent and Distribution Rights?

So begins the next great arms race with the superpowers, and some less than superpowers, jockeying for the top spot in the world of international medical power-brokering.

The last time, only two nations were left standing at the end of a global race, when each had military arsenals jammed with nuclear missiles capable of destroying, with the touch of a button, the world.

We called it the “Cold War” at the time. The superpowers, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the USSR – Russia) and the United States of America, were challenging each other, and each seemed ready to destroy their rival and the world.

The only thing delaying the final act was the fact that any cataclysm started by one would destroy all.

And so, the world moved on. The mighty Soviet Union disintegrated. Russia remained on the world stage respected but not as powerful or as feared as it once was. Old Europe tried to re-group as the European Union joining forces for economic clout, but in recent months that shaky union has been travelling a bumpy road threatening EU survival.

Now, seemingly overnight, China has stepped from the global shadows into the world spotlight. In fact, China began its transition decades ago from the instability of revolution to an internationally powerful military and economic force capable of facing down the threatening bluster of the United States and President Donald Trump.

Now, China is positioned to challenge the USA for the best weaponry in the field of public health care. 

China has become a favourite Trump target since he ignored warnings in late 2019 that an outbreak of COVID-19, a disease caused by the novel coronavirus, was being reported. The president chose to ignore the early warnings that with no vaccine or treatment known for the disease, it would become a global pandemic.

China attempted to confine the COVID-19 outbreak by isolating the communities in which it was reported, banning new visitors and confining all citizens until further notice.

But it was too late. The first carriers of COVID-19 had unknowingly spread the disease to Europe and other corners of the globe.

President Trump was quick to blame his political rivals for running a vendetta against him and for supporting Chinese government attempts to cover up laboratory work that had gone astray and permitted the release of the disease.

The World Health Organization cleared the Chinese government of wrongdoing. Trump has held back WHO funding pending review.

In the next few weeks or months, the WHO will be expected to play a lead role if a vaccine is discovered to defeat COVID-19. For many years now, it has coordinated significant research and discussion in the realm of international public health policy, helping determine what standards should be set and met. But it lacks the power of binding decision making.

So, the great race begins for new, more powerful weapons, new armour to protect citizens against invading forces, new strike forces to move anywhere in the world to defeat the invisible alien virus.

And, every country in the world can bid to deliver those weapons. It should be a great war rooted in high ideals, healing and happiness. But, can that happen with Trump muscling to get his “America First” thumb on the decision scales? Can China overcome inherent distrust on the part of western nations and agree to coordinated research and delivery of the product?

It should be possible – but it’s hard to ignore the warning message from Melinda Gates, wife of Bill Gates. Talking about vaccines and cures a few days ago, she feared a final decision on a vaccine or cure would go to the highest bidder. “The worst situation would be if, when these tools are available, they go to the highest bidder – that would be a terrible end for the world. COVID-19 anywhere is COVID-19 everywhere. And that’s why it’s got to take global cooperation.”

Oxford University scientists have a head start in the race for a cure. They had been researching inoculations for viruses similar to COVID-19, and figure by September they will be ready to release their vaccine.

They could stay ahead in the race for rights, but they will not be alone. The competition will be fierce. We can only watch and hope that world leaders listen to Melinda Gates when they decide on resolution. Covid-19 is a world problem not an “America First”” election slogan.