SOLIDARITY FOREVER?

Thirty-three years ago, the newly-relected Social Credit government of Bill Bennett brought down the most dramatic, yay outlandish, budget and “restraint” package in B.C. history. What happened next is detailed here in an essay I wrote a year or so ago.

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On July 7, 1983, Bill Bennett and his Social Credit government, freshly elected to a third successive term in office, unleashed a revolution in British Columbia. This was a revolution from the right. Fueled by the radical conservatism of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and Milton Friedman’s economic neo-liberalism, the Socreds took aim at all those elements in society they had never liked. With no advance notice, a total of 26 repressive bills came down the chute in a single day, along with a harsh government restraint budget that dramatically slashed social spending. Rent controls were abolished. Landlords were given the right to evict tenants without cause. The Human Rights Commission was shut down, its workers fired on the spot. The Employment Standards Branch was killed off. Scrutiny of Crown corporations was wound up, while the government tightened its grip over local school board budgets and community colleges, including course content. And on and on.

The worst of the onslaught focused on workers and unions in the public sector. Under Bill 2, they lost the right to negotiate almost anything except wages and benefits, even as wage controls were extended indefinitely. Bill 3, designed to pave the way for a wave of firings, wiped out job security and, incredibly, gave all public sector authorities the power to terminate workers without cause, regardless of seniority. (The first list of government employees to be fired included the names of B.C. Government Employees Union executive members John Shields and Diane Woods.) This was, indeed, “Black Thursday”.

The legislative barrage came at a dire time for the labour movement, already weakened by yet another NDP defeat at the polls and the sudden death earlier that year of Jim Kinnaird, the tough, able Scot who had headed the B.C. Federation of Labour since 1976. Kinnaird’s stopgap successor was Art Kube, a portly, relatively unknown, Canadian Labour Congress staffer with little real union experience.

Yet the fightback was immediate and intense. In fact, there has never been anything quite like the concerted Operation Solidarity protest that swept the province through four turbulent months during the summer and fall of 1983. The popular, union-led uprising against Premier Bennett’s Restraint Program brought B.C. to the verge of a general strike, involving hundreds of thousands public sector workers, with B.C.’s powerful private sector unions waiting to join in the moment anyone was punished for walking off the job. Resistance was further powered by an unprecedented coalition between the labour movement and community advocacy groups that had seen so many of their own rights trampled. Kube, his belief system forged in the social democracy of his native Austria, was to prove an adept leader and strategist, who steered this unlikely coalition until the wheels fell off at the very end.

George Hewison of the Fishermen’s Union was first off the mark. He called a meeting. Instead of the usual suspects, more than a hundred people showed up. They decided to hold a demonstration. Two weeks later, 20,000 people marched across the Georgia Viaduct. The rally featured IWA leader Jack Munro’s enduring observation on whether the numerous protest signs referring to “fascism” went too far. “If it looks like a duck, and it walks like a duck, then it’s probably a goddamned duck!” he thundered. The crowd roared back.

Kube soon coordinated union action, bringing Fed affiliates and their bitter, independent Canadian union rivals together for the first time, under the banner of the astutely-named Operation Solidarity.

Social activists also threw themselves into the struggle. A myriad opposition groups sprang up. One left-wing lawyer complained his practice was going to seed. “All I do is go to meetings.” Kube harnessed this activism into a separate Solidarity Coalition, hired several organizers, funded the rambunctious Solidarity Times newspaper, and convinced the Coalition they were equal partners with the protest’s potent trade union arm.

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Demonstrations and wildcat strikes, including a lengthy occupation of the Tranquille mental health facility in Kamloops, soon spread throughout the province. Twenty-five thousand swarmed the lawn of the legislature. Elsewhere, even in Social Credit strongholds, protestors rallied in the hundreds and thousands. But nothing topped the day tens of thousands public sector workers booked off and crammed every nook and cranny of Vancouver’s Empire Stadium. Just when it seemed the old stadium was completely jammed, in marched hundreds of uniformed firefighters, led by their famed marching band. It was a chilling, emotional moment that no one who was there would ever forget. Hope and optimism were in the air.

But Bill Bennett refused to buckle, deriding protestors as losers re-fighting the last election. Despite heroic, marathon efforts by NDP MLAs to stall the legislation, one by one the bills were pushed through.

Solidarity leaders gambled on one more demonstration, this one in mid-October, organized by the Coalition. The turnout stunned those on both sides of the battle. An estimated 80,000 demonstrators thronged the downtown streets of Vancouver. It remains the biggest protest in the city’s long, stormy history. It was time to move to the picket line. Solidarity hatched a war plan, calling for a series of escalating public sector walkouts, culminating in an all-out general strike.

Two weeks after the huge October protest, 40,000 members of the BCGEU walked off the job – legally – while their negotiators demanded the turfing of Bill 2 and an exemption from Bill 3. A week later, thousands of public school teachers and other education workers defied the law and hit the bricks on an illegal strike, seeking similar job protection. Municipal employees and the province’s critical ferry workers were next in line, set to strike on Monday, Nov. 14.

Finally, the government got nervous. They began to talk seriously about issues that had inflamed B.C. for months. Norman Spector, Bennett’s right hand man, parachuted into round-the-clock bargaining with the BCGEU at the B.C. Labour Relations Board. Spector also met secretly with B.C. Federation of Labour heavyweights Jack Munro and Mike Kramer.

The end came in a series of dramatic events that concluded less than 12 hours before the threatened ferry workers’ strike. The BCGEU won a deal containing wage increases, the death of Bill 2 and a Bill 3 exemption that recognized layoffs by seniority. It was a victory of sorts, and BCGEU negotiators brought out the champagne at their union headquarters in Burnaby. It was now a union show. The Solidarity Coalition and its causes, which had been such a part of the four-month protest, were shunted to the sidelines. “How can they celebrate when they’re selling out human rights?” lamented one Coalition leader, bitterly.

But before the picket lines came down, Operation Solidarity still wanted a pact with Bill Bennett to confirm their limited gains. With Kube home sick, Jack Munro flew to Kelowna to “negotiate” with the Premier. Sensing Solidarity’s desperation, however, Bennett refused to make any public statement committing the government to anything. Over the phone, Kube told Munro to “get the hell out of there”. Munro stayed. With the unanimous support of Federation executive members back in Vancouver, he soon stepped onto Bennett’s darkened porch and announced an end to Solidarity’s magnificent movement. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

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(Vancouver Sun photo)

Privately, the government agreed to Bill 3 exemptions throughout the public sector, keeping money saved by the teachers’ walkout in the education system, and consultation on a few social matters. Yet this seemed a pittance to those who had had such high hopes for so many months. Instead of a victory celebration, there was bitterness and confusion. People felt betrayed. Operation Sellout buttons became popular. Jack Munro was vilified, both inside and outside the trade union movement. Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect union members to strike and sacrifice their own pay cheques for non-monetary, non-union social issues. But this was never articulated to the Solidarity Coalition, which was left out in the rain by the final agreement.

In the cold light of dawn, however, there were still significant achievements to be noted. Nowhere in Canada outside Quebec had a strong, militant labour movement been able to stop a government’s anti-union agenda in its tracks. In the end, after all its bluster, Social Credit completely capitulated on Bills 2 and 3. That clear triumph is often forgotten amid all the unhappiness over the so-called Kelowna Accord. Bennett, himself, was heavily damaged politically. He chose not to run again. The extent of the historic fightback also dampened public enthusiasm for his right-wing, neo-con Restraint Program, few elements of which survive today. It also ensured Bennet would never be hailed a conservative folk hero, except perhaps by the Fraser Institute, as were Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. For all of that, we can thank Operation Solidarity. And the Solidarity Coalition.

(and here’s what I wrote for the Globe and Mail on the 25th anniversary of the Kelowna Accord http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/back-from-the-brink-25-years-later/article20389444/)

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THE GREATEST

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A tough week for us sports fans of another generation. Losing two great heroes of our youth: Muhammad Ali, and now, Gordie Howe (he never changed his name to Gordon..). This is about the champ.

It’s been said many, many times, but it remains true. Never again will we see the likes of Muhammad Ali. “For all you kids out there”, it’s difficult to convey just how dominant a figure he was during those first 20 years he reigned as by far the most beloved and admired athlete in the world. Evidence of his unsurpassed skill and courage in the ring are easily found on YouTube. And most accounts written after Ali’s death relate in great detail his bold, in-your-face defiance of white America. He stuck it to “the man’, as few had before, with his loudly-proclaimed conversion to the radical Black Muslims, his name change from Cassius Clay to (gasp) Muhammad Ali, announced while standing beside Malcolm X (another gasp), and most of all, his willingness to go to jail rather than be sent to Vietnam to kill people “who never called me nigger”.

Still, it’s not really possible to capture just what it was like to actually experience those years, when Clay/Ali bestrode the world like the proverbial colossus. With his flashing fists, dancing feet and outrageous, versified braggadocio, he opened up the narrow, closed confines of boxing to the great beyond, as no one had before. The charged anticipation for every one of his big fights was unsurpassed. It was as if a cloak had been thrown over everything else going on, except for Ali’s showdowns against Sonny Liston, or Joe Frazier, or George Foreman. Everyone listened, watched on big pay-for-view screens, or followed round-by-round dispatches sent out by the wire services. Long before social media, we were a global Ali community.

Nor can one quantify the extent of outrage and villification that spewed down on Ali when he turned his back on everything American. Even those who loved him as a boxer were confused by his decision to join the Black Muslims, an extremist, black separatist group led by the shadowy Elijah Muhammad, who was a long way from Martin Luther King. Yet, with everything to lose, and it did cost him big, Ali stood up for his rights as a black man, loudly and unabashedly, and was hated for it. No wonder he feared for his life.

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(The famous cover from Esquire.)

It was only after he returned to the ring, three and a half years after his title was taken away for refusing induction into the armed forces, that sentiment began to soften. He was now admired, rather than loathed, for remaining true to his convictions, and for his renewed prowess in the ring. No longer able to float like a butterfly and sting like bee, he harnessed raw courage, tactical brilliance, and a frightening ability to take a punch that almost certainly contributed to the Parkinson’s Disease that finally silenced him to claim the heavyweight crown two more times. From the dusty villages of Africa, to the streets of Iraq, to the halls of presidents, he was celebrated and loved. It’s a lesser world without him, even reduced as he was over the years by the relentless scourge of his illness.

I saw Muhammad Ali, once. It was in Pyongyang in 1995, at the strangest event I’ve ever been at. For reasons known only to its alien-like leaders, the crackpot regime of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea staged a series of professional wrestling bouts before upwards of 150,000 bewildered North Koreans at the city’s massive public stadium. They called it the Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace. Participants were all from the Japanese wrestling circuit. They included the usual gang of archetypal villains in evil, spiked costumes, tough-looking women with blue hair, Canadian Chris Benoit, the legendary Ric Flair and Antonio Inoki, the most famous grappler in Japan.

The matches took place in almost total silence, as spectators had no idea what to make of competitors slamming their opponents’ head into ring posts, jumping on them from the top of the ropes, or hurling them out of the ring and stomping on them. The only hook for the absurd event seemed to be a tenuous connection between North Korea and Antonio Inoki. His early mentor was Rikidozan, founder of professional wrestling in Japan, who happened to have been born in what became North Korea. That was enough for Rikidozan to qualify as a national hero and for the wacky poobahs of DPRK to stage an entire festival around the first showdown beween Ric Flair and Inoki. Most of the Beijing press corps, complete with cameras, microphones and tape recorders, were among the select group of “tourists” invited to attend.

Just when I thought Wrestling Night in Pyongyang couldn’t get any more bizarre, they announced the presence of Muhammad Ali. But of course. Wasn’t he the world’s greatest athlete, North Korea the world’s greatest country, and the Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace the world’s greatest festival? To the organizers, it made perfect sense. Besides, Ali had once fought Inoki, himself. In the most ridiculous match of all time, Inoki spent all 15 rounds on the mat trying to kick his opponent’s legs, while Ali threw a grand total of six punches. You can look it up. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3vOssizwW4

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Anyway, there was Ali, unmistakeable in the stands. The crowd applauded politely, not quite sure how to greet a representative of the “Yankee wolf”, as English phrase books in North Korea labeled the USA. The champ half stood up and gave a half wave. Even from far away, I was thrilled.

All of which is a long-winded introduction to something I wrote a couple of years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Ali first great victory, his upset over the feared Sonny Liston to give him his first heavyweight championship. Looking back, I still find it hard to believe someone as wonderful and outlandish as Muhammad Ali really existed. As my original blog confesses, however, I was one of Cassius Clay’s many early doubters, a belief that socked me right in the wallet. But I was so spurred by the magnitude of his triumph that I tried a bit of Clay doggerel, myself, for the school yearbook. May you survive it, and may Muhammad Ali be sitting on the right hand of the black God he worshipped. We will never forget him.

SONNY LISTON OWES ME BIG

Fifty years ago today, I turned on the radio, smug in the belief that this was going to be the easiest dollar I ever made. That brash, upstart, crazy Cassius Clay was finally going to get his long overdue comeuppance, his taunts and boasts rammed down that big throat of his by the meanest, scariest fighter who ever lived, Sonny “The Bear” Liston.

An ex-con whose baleful scare frightened even hardened sportswriters was violence personified in the ring, Liston had twice taken on the skilled, much-loved former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. Patterson didn’t make it past the first round in either fight, hammered early to the canvas both times by Liston’s murderous fists. Few fighters dared to face him, despite the big payday of a heavyweight championship match.

Not so, Cassius Clay (the “slave name” that he later changed to Muhammad Ali….you may have heard of him…). Just 22, with thefastest mouth in showbiz but a spotty  record of dispatching ho-hum opponents, Clay had the audacity to challenge the seemingly invincible  Liston.  Not only that, he openly and repeatedly taunted Liston, even yelling at him outside his house in the middle of the night. An even-keel Liston was frightening, enough. Now, the Louisville Lip had made him mad. Yikes.

Some worried Clay might not even survive the fight, and just about everyone expected Liston to pulverize him in short order. Everyone, that is, except my friend Gary Toporoski, a bit of a loud-mouth in his own right. (sorry, Gary…). “Topper” was completely convinced Cassius Clay really was “gonna whup that big ugly bear”.  Why? Well, it seems he had seen Cassius Clay’s guest appearance on a CFTO sports show, and Clay started the show by flicking an array of lightening jabs at the camera.  “He’s sooo fast,” said my enthralled Newmarket High School friend. “There’s no way Liston can beat him. He’s too slow.”

I told him he was nuts. We decided to bet on the fight, something I’d never done before. In fact, I was so confident Liston would prevail, I even gave Toporoski the going 7-1 odds. His dollar against my seven.  I had already decided to treat myself to a hamburger at the Newmarket Grill with my big winnings. Instead, of course, I ate crow.

With a heavy but wiser heart, I handed Gary seven smackers (a lot of money in them there daze) at school the next day. He only said “I told you so” about 84 times. I’ve never bet on a match since.

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Months later, still stung, I burst forward into doggerel for the 1964 school yearbook. Move over, Longfellow.

THE INCREDIBLE UPSET

The Bear was ugly, mean and detested.

Only once in a fight had he been been bested.

The Louisville Lip had no more chance

To whip the Bear than the Premier of France.

 

But came that decisive night in Miami,

Cassisus Clay had some sort of whammy.

For he blasted the myth that the Bear was too strong.

He proved he could box, as well as talk long.

 

In the fifth, when not a thing could he see,

He displayed some footwork that baffled Sonny.

With a continual jab and by dancing around,

The man with the mouth survived that tough round.

The Bear was a Cub by the end of round six.

The fans in the Hall began to yell “Fix!”.

For he threw in the towel to the man he despised,

And Cassius Clay had our opinions revised.

 

He floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.

His speed had conquered the ferocious Sonny.

Clay’s gift of the gab was far from the latest,

But who could deny that he was “the greatest”?

— Montana Worthlesswords (c’est moi)

Here’s the famous fight that made losers out of both Sonny Liston and me.

 

 

READING THE PAPERS, IN SEATTLE

kids-reading-paperHey, kids! Montreal Expos caps and vinyl aren’t the only hip retro around. Be the first in your group to read a print newspaper. Take time out from your busy online life, relax and turn the pages. Impress your friends. You never know what unexpected treasures of information and features might lurk deep within.

As the late, great David Carr (sigh) did during all his visits outside New York, I still peruse the local newspapers whenever I venture beyond Van, man. Here are some print gleanings from a recent weekend baseball venture to Seattle. You, too, can be a newspaper explorer.

  1. Let’s start with a joke. You’re probably one of those who think Boise, Idaho is no laughing matter. Well, you’d be wrong. The lede of an enticing article on Boise that made me actually want to visit was this giggle by Garrison Keillor: “No matter how smug a Boise tech millionaire might feel as he drives around in his fancy Mercedes, his licence plate still says: ‘Famous Potatoes’.” Well, it made me laugh.image3
  1. Seattle has a writer and performer name of Stokley Towles. Given all the topics in all the world, he’s chosen in recent years to focus on “LOCAL INFRASTRUCTURE”. Yep, water, sewage, garbage and “other systems we interact with on a daily basis”. Be still, my beating heart. His latest show was about Seattle’s bus service. Of course, it took place on an actual transit bus, and sold out. How cool is that? Toronto may have Drake, but Seattle has Stokley Towles (stokleytowes.com).
  1. Turning to the obits, which are often the best part of any paper (no, seriously…), we find the rich life of Mary Fung Koehler. A child of the Depression, born to Chinese-American parents in Chicago, she grew up working in Chinese restaurants. From there, she became the third woman to graduate from chemical engineering at the University of Illinois. After time out for marriage, children and a move to Seattle, Ms. Koehler enrolled in law at the University of Washington, the only female minority in her class. She graduated, seven months pregnant with her fifth child. Ever a pathfinder, in the early 1980’s Ms. Koehler represented two lesbian mothers in a successful child custody battle against their ex-husbands. The case was one of many civil liberty legal battles she fought. When clients couldn’t pay, she let them work off the debt by working on her car or painting the house.

The obit goes on to detail her “extremely colourful personality”, featuring a smile that “literally reached from ear to ear” and a life-long mission to heal people. Plus this gem: “She also liked to predict people’s IQs, and at one point declared that the family dog Izzy’s IQ was higher than that of George W. Bush.” Mary Fung Koehler, sounds like you were a real corker during your time on this struggling earth. May you Rest In Wonderful Peace.

  1. We think we have trouble with income divisions in our education system. And we do, as increasing numbers of parents send their kids to private schools, and those on Vancouver’s east side who can manage it opt for public schools on the west side. But consider Seattle. One-third of students of colour in Seattle attend a “high-poverty” school, while a third of white Seattle students go to a private school. The gap continues in the public schools, themselves. Grade 3 reading standards are being met by students of colour at a rate 30 per cent lower than those of their white classmates. The stats came out an all-day symposium attended by more than 500 politicians, educators, policymakers, parents and students to consider ways to improve this distressing situation. I liked what 18-year old, high-school senior, Ahlaam Ibraahim, had to say. Wearing a head scarf, she said that students like her suffer from low expectations, even when her classmates get A’s in advanced classes. “People were surprised that we could do it,” she told the symposium. “Why are your expectations of me so low? These lowered expectations aren’t going to get us anywhere.” Good for her. One can only hope young, confident students like Ahlaam Ibraahim are the future.
  1. From Cooking with Cannabis, now a regular column in the Seattle Weekly, I learned: “One of the oldest cannabis recipes on record is from 1475, written by a baller named Bartholomaeus Platina.” And: “Another easy way to consume weed is bhang.” A good bhang for the baller, so to speak.
  1. Alas, another Duck Boat fatality. The “amphibious sightseeing vehicle” hit and killed a woman driving a scooter in downtown Boston. It was just last year that one of Seattle’s deadly duckmobiles with the wise-cracking drivers crashed into a charter bus, killing five of the bus passengers. Two earlier accidents in Philadelphia claimed three other lives. No laughing matter, methinks.

7.  More cheery news. A 25-year old intruder in beautiful Sultan, Washington picked the wrong place to intrude. He was shot dead by an 80-year old woman, who fired three shots into him after the miscreant stabbed her husband. Her son could not have been more proud of mom. Intruders will now think twice about intruding there, he informed a Seattle Times “They’ll come in, look at her and run the other way.” Readers having their breakfast must have enjoyed his account. “My mom hears what’s going on, comes out and sees the guy standing over my stepdad, and there’s blood all over the floor and his guts are coming out.” She ran into the bedroom. “She grabbed her gun, comes out, shoots him four times and kills him,” he added, with a flourish. Justice, American-style. “My mother doesn’t feel bad, and neither do I. He almost killed my stepdad. He got what he had coming.” Just another day in the life of Sultan, Washington.

8. Sound headline advice to “Relationship Confused” from Ask Amy: “Wake up and smell the implications of girlfriend’s intimacy with her male friend.” Yep.

 
9. Boeing being Boeing, state lawmakers thought they needed to give the mega-aircraft builder some mega-tax breaks to keep all those jobs in Washington. What could possibly go wrong? Well, since the tax-incentive package took effect, Boeing has cut its workforce by more than 5,600, including the transfer of thousands of engineering jobs to lower-cost areas of the States. Never mind, say unrepentant legislators. Just think how many jobs would have been lost without those billions in forgiven taxes…

brother_typewriter_pink_210. And finally, best of all. A front page story in the Seattle Times tells all about a youth movement taking over the region’s last typewriter repair shop. After more than 75 years fixing ye olde clackety-clacks, 94-year old Bob Montgomery has sold out. Taking over Bremerton Office Machine Co. is whippersnapper Paul Lundy, a spritely stripling of 56. “I had an epiphany,” enthused Lundy. “What an amazing single-purpose machine.” For Montgomery, stooped and frail, it’s the end of a long, long love affair. He never married. “Typewriters, typewriters, typewriters,” he explained. During the Second World War, Montgomery was snatched from the infantry for the less hazardous duties of fixing typewriters, particularly those at Bushy Park in London, where Dwight D. Eisenhower had his military headquarters. The D-Day landings were planned there. Who knows? Maybe, by fixing a critical, sticky D key on Ike’s typewriter, Bob Montgomery played a “key” role in the mission’s success.

Meanwhile, the new Typewriter Repairman has to deal with the skeptics, the same kind of modernists who sadly shake their heads at me for still writing cheques and using the mail. It’s not about the money, said Paul Lundy. “I am fortunate to be one of the few individuals working on durable goods. How many people get to restore machines built in 1900 or even 1986, and see them come back to life?” Exactly. http://www.seattletimes.com/business/local-business/areas-last-typewriter-repair-shop-to-go-on-clicking/

 

THE STORY OF THE KOMAGATA MARU

At long last, a formal apology is being delivered in the House of Commons for Canada’s racist behaviour in its shameful treatment of Sikh passengers aboard the Komagata Maru who had the effrontery to seek immigration to the West Coast more than a hundred years ago. Not only were they denied entry, they were subjected to two months of exceptionally inhumane treatment by unflinching immigration officers. While many now know the basics of the ill-fated voyage, the story has many elements that are less well known. I am indebted to Hugh Johnston and his definitive book, The Voyage of the Komagata Maru.

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Just days before the outbreak of World War One, the most direct challenge to Canada’s racist, anti-Asian immigration policies was about to come to a potentially bloody end in the waters of Burrard Inlet. Thousands of Vancouverites lined the waterfront to watch, while dozens of small boats bobbed about offshore for a ringside view. All eyes focused on the Komagata Maru, an ungainly Japanese merchant ship carrying more than 350 hungry and increasingly desperate immigrant hopefuls from India, and the HMCS Rainbow, the only seaworthy vessel in the Canadian Navy.

The cruiser had been dispatched, after the predominantly Sikh passengers resisted a deportation order by bombarding police trying to board their ship with rocks, bricks and other debris. As the Rainbow trained its guns on the Komagata Maru, those on board bolstered their spirits with patriotic war songs from their Punjabi homeland and prepared for further battle. They vowed to fight to the end. The presence of 200 armed militia gathered on the pier and 35 riflemen aboard a nearby police tug added to the tension.

By then a familiar sight to Vancouverites, the Komagata Maru had been marooned in the harbour for two months by a nasty, hard-boiled immigration agent, Malcolm Reid. An implicit believer in a “white Canada”, Reid took the law into his own hands to ensure not a single immigrant made it to shore. In this, he was actively assisted by local Conservative MP and white supremacist, Henry Herbert Stevens. Now, Reid had a deportation order to force the ship back to Asia. Except those on board were not prepared to leave. The looming showdown and potential of armed conflict so close to shore was a magnet for the people of Vancouver. As chronicler Hugh Johnston put it: “The city had taken the day off to see the show.”

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The saga of the Komagata Maru was yet another dark chapter in Canada’s racist past. A complex tale, with many twists and turns, multiple agendas and bitter factionalism, the basic issue was nevertheless straightforward. Among a series of race-based policies to curtail Asian immigration, Canada imposed its harshest restrictions on people from India. Orders-in-council in 1908 brought a complete halt to an immigration flow that had seen 2,500 Indians come to B.C. in less than five years. Though newspapers universally labelled them “Hindus”, almost all were Sikhs from rural Punjab. They proved tough, able workers, finding jobs mostly in logging and sawmills. At the same time, they suffered the same prejudice, harassment and white hysteria as immigrants from China and Japan.

Unlike the Chinese and Japanese, however, who mostly suffered in silence, those from India loudly protested the government’s immigration restrictions.

Arguing they had the same rights as all British subjects, they fought numerous and sometimes successful battles in the courts. In 1914, they took the government head on with the arrival of the Komagata Maru. Organized by Gurdit Singh, an ultra-confident Sikh businessman, the ship and its passengers defied the government’s ordinance that barred Indian immigrants from landing in Canada unless they came on a direct journey from India. No such passage existed. Singh boldly picked up passengers in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Yokohama, before heading to to Vancouver. His aim was to test the ban in court, confident their rights as British subjects would be upheld.

When the ship arrived on May 23, however, Reid refused to allow it to dock. He, too, had a goal: force the Komagata Maru back to Asia, if he could, without a court hearing. To that end, he kept the passengers imprisoned, their ship circled day and night by armed patrol launches. Ignoring instructions from faraway superiors in Ottawa, he stretched normally swift procedures into weeks. And periodically, he cut off food and water deliveries to the ship. At one point, passengers were so thirsty, some licked water off the deck when a small amount spilled from a barrel.

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Their fight was taken up by Sikhs on shore, who provided . extraordinary support for those on board. The Sikhs’ determined Shore Committee raised thousands of dollars from their relatively small community to pay for lawyers, ship supplies and expenses of the charter, itself. They kept up a barrage of pressure, until at last Ottawa over-ruled the obstreperous Reid and agreed to submit the matter to the B.C. Court of Appeal. With nothing approaching a Charter of Rights and Freedom, however, the five judges ruled unanimously that the ship’s passengers should be deported. Worn out by their many frustrating weeks at sea, those on board accepted the verdict.

Yet Reid, sensing Indian plots everywhere, continued to harass them, ordering the ship to leave without provisions and demanding its huge charter costs be paid first. The vessel remained at anchor, prompting Reid to cut off food and water for three more days. When he foolhardily came on board, the passengers threatened to keep him there. A tall, dignified Sikh told Reid: “If you were starving for three or four hours, you would soon take action to get something for yourself, but we have had nothing for three days. Now you are here, we would like to hold you until we get provisions and water.” The action worked, and supplies soon appeared. The passengers fought back again, when police subsequently tried to board the ship to send it on its way, still without adequate food. That battle brought in the navy, and that brought thousands of excited onlookers to the docks.

The hours ticked by. On the HMCS Rainbow, Commander Walter Hose warned authorities there could be heavy loss of life, if he were ordered to storm the Komagata Maru. Finally, much to the disappointment of the watching crowd and Malcolm Reid, the federal government blinked. They agreed to fully stock the ship for its return journey. At 5 a.m. the next morning, two months to the day of its arrival, the Komagata Maru weighed anchor and headed back to Asia. Racism had triumphed.

Tragically, this was not the end of the story. When the ship reached India, British authorities tried to force passengers directly back to the Punjab. When some resisted, imperial forces opened fire, killing 20 of them at an obscure railway depot named Budge Budge.

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And back in Vancouver, bitterness erupted over the role of community informers used by Reid to keep tabs on the situation. Two informers were fatally shot. Shortly afterwards, Reid’s chief Sikh informant opened fire himself at the funeral of one of the victims, killing two worshipers. When Immigration Inspector William Hopkinson, who headed surveillance activities for Reid, showed up at the courthouse, local Sikh Mewa Singh took out a .32 calibre revolver and shot him dead. Before being hung for Hopkinson’s murder, Singh said he acted to uphold the principles and honour of his religion. To this day, Singh is recognized as a martyr by many in the Sikh community.

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“FEELING THE BERN” IN THAT OTHER VANCOUVER

IMG_3949The 74-year old, white-haired politician advanced to the podium, and the roof nearly came off the Hudson’s Bay High School gymnasium. No wonder. For nearly four hours, thousands of us had been standing in line, braving a cold, miserable rain, without even knowing whether we would be among the 5,000 or so lucky enough to make it inside. Our little group, friends after sharing the miserable ordeal outside, scraped through by the skin of our chattering teeth, but the doors soon closed on thousands more.

As the cheers continued to cascade down from the packed, rickety benches of the high school gym, Bernie Sanders leaned forward and shouted in his hoarse, Brooklynese. “All I can say is: WHOA!” The roar got louder. “It sounds to me like the people of Vancouver and the state of Washington are ready for a political revolution.” Clearly they were, along with millions of other Americans across the country, who have been rallying in such astonishing numbers to the political phenomenon that is Bernie Sanders.

While the headlines and pundits focus on the truly frightening Donald Trump, Sanders has been going about his business, undeterred by numbers that show him with little chance of wresting the Democratic Party nomination from the well-connected Hillary Clinton. He pursues his quixotic quest with no sign of flagging enthusiasm, urging the crowd to register and show up for the coming caucuses to determine convention delegates for the State of Washington.

Now it was our turn for the Bernie Sanders Socialist Revival Hour. The rally in Vancouver showcased just how much the Sanders campaign and its captivating slogan “A Future to Believe In” remains full of vigour. A pleasant but otherwise nondescript, mid-sized city just across the Columbia River from Oregon, founded by the Hudson’s Bay Company, Vancouver is hardly a hotbed of political activism. Yet people began lining up at the crack of dawn for Sanders’ early afternoon appearance. “There are a lot of people here I never thought would show up for a political rally,” one soaked, early arriver told a reporter. Indeed, that has been a feature of the Sanders campaign from the beginning. Many of those flocking to his side are first-timers from well outside the traditional political spectrum. Millennials, in particular, were everywhere in the sea of Gortex and hoodies that stretched in all directions outside the school. “Maybe we can start a revolution,” said the young nursing student ahead of us in the rain-lashed line.

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And maybe they can. Later that day, 25,000 showed up to hear Sanders in Seattle, another 10,000 in Spokane. Campaign organizers have now audaciously booked Seattle’s 45,000-seat Safeco Field for another mass public gathering. So far, Sanders has scored victories in 11 primaries and caucuses, securing a total of more than 900 delegates. Not bad for a Noam Chomsky-loving, self-proclaimed democratic socialist in a country where, until recently just to be branded a liberal was considered political death. It’s really quite amazing.

Few, maybe not even Bernie Sanders, saw this coming when he announced his bid for the Democratic nomination last year. “The general consensus was that we were looking at a coronation, that there was an anointed candidate,” said Sanders. He paused. “Well, ten months have come and gone, and it doesn’t look to me like that’s the case….” The fired-up crowd erupted in a frenzy of sign-waving and cheers.

As the primaries pile up and the convention nears, Sanders has not watered down his radical rhetoric and progressive policies one bit. There is no move to the mushy centre in search of undecided voters. His targets remain the billionaires, Wall Street speculators, multi-national drug companies, the corporate media “who talk about everything except the most important issues facing the American people”, “militarized” police forces… The list is lengthy. His platform is pitched at the young and the powerless, low-wage earners struggling to make a living in a land, said Sanders, where corporations pack up and move, if they can make even a few dollars more somewhere else. The “real change” the United States needs is unlikely to come from “Secretary Clinton”, he asserted bluntly, with her millions in campaign donations from Wall Street and trusts that include the fossil fuel industry and big pharmaceutical companies.

He laid it all out in a direct, forceful 45-minute speech, short on humour and niceties, long on all the ills of American society and, in the words of Lenin, “What Is To Be Done.” Wild applause greeted every point he hammered home.

Like an old-time blues shouter, Sanders asked: “Are you ready for a radical idea?” The “Yes!” was deafening. “We are doing something extremely unusual in American politics,” he confided. “We are telling the truth.” And what is that truth? Sanders didn’t mince words. “The truth is that the ruling class of this country is so powerful that a handful of billionaires believe that with their billions they have a right to win elections for the wealthy and the powerful…But we say ‘no’ to the corporate billionaires on Wall Street. We are a democracy, and we are not going to allow billionaires to take it away from us.”

Despite the USA’s deep-seated history of red-baiting and anti-communism, Sanders is thriving with a socialist message that hasn’t changed all that much in the 40 years he’s been preaching it, a perennial lone wolf from the left. Yet suddenly, out of nowhere, people are listening and lapping it up. He has tapped into a lot of the working-class anger that has also helped propel Donald Trump to his current, scary prominence. The difference is that Trump’s poisonous brand is exclusive, while Sanders’ message is resolutely positive and inclusive. He wants a fair deal for everyone.

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Sanders ploughs forward, undeterred by the legion of mainstream critics. “I’ve been criticized for saying this, so let me say it again,” he told us, drawing a rare laugh from the audience. “Every country in the world guarantees health care to all its people. Yet 29 million Americans still have no health insurance. Many others are being forced to pay huge sums for their coverage, while the drug companies keep ripping us off,” Sanders said. “I believe health care is a right, not a privilege. Medicare for all!” The declaration drew one of the loudest responses of the day. “Bernie! Bernie”, chanted the crowd. The chanters included the woman beside us who had shared her umbrella during our lengthy wait in line. She had asked about Canada’s health care system, after telling us that full coverage for herself, her husband and two kids would cost a thousand dollars a month. So her husband is doing without. These are the people joining the Sanders crusade. Left behind by the powers that be, they feel no one cares for them but Bernie.

In Vancouver, they were almost all white, befitting the city’s demographics, and predominantly young, like the teenaged couple sitting in front of us who interrupted persistent smooching to raise their right hands in a fist whenever Sanders said something they liked, which was often. “We’ve received more votes from people under 30 than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined,” trumpeted the junior Senator from Vermont.

Progressive promises piled up throughout his speech.

  • a nation-wide, minimum wage of $15 an hour.
  • a tax on “Wall Street speculation”.
  • an end to “corporate tax loopholes”.
  • an end to the War on Drugs (deafening whoops).
  • fixing a “rigged economy” that has the top one-tenth of one percent owning “almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 per cent”.
  • “comprehensive” immigration reform.
  • taking on the fossil fuel industry to combat climate change and enhance sustainable energy.
  • diversifying police forces “so they look like the people they’re policing”.

And finally, most popular of all, judging by the prolonged ovation it received: free tuition for all public college and university students. “Last I heard, getting an education is not a crime or a punishment,” said Sanders, to ringing cheers. “We need the best educated work force in the world. So why are we punishing young people with crushing debt by the time they graduate?”

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Not since the hapless, 1948 run by Henry Wallace of the Progressive Party has there been such a radical, presidential platform from the left. Although it would undoubtedly be premature to write him off completely, Sanders remains a long shot to win the Democrat nomination. But he has tapped into a deep yearning for meaningful change among Americans struggling to survive, while the rich grow ever wealthier. No one seems deterred by the term “socialist” any more. As one of Sanders’ pollsters told the New Yorker, explaining millennial support for his candidate: “What’s their experience been with capitalism? They’ve had two recessions, one really bad one. They have a mountain of student-loan debt. They’ve got really high health care costs, and their job prospects are mediocre at best. So that’s capitalism for you.”

Sanders has already forced an increasingly worried Hillary Clinton to tack leftward on a number of issues, and he is showing signs of cutting into her strong support among Afro-Americans. According to the latest Bloomberg poll, “feeling the Bern” has totally erased Clinton’s once enormous lead in popular support, and the two are in a dead heat. The remarkable journey launched by that old leftie codger has a ways to go yet.

 

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PASSING OF A NEWSPAPER MAN. RON ROSE, RIP.

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We said farewell late last month to a good man. Part of the great generation that survived the Depression, World War Two, the tinderbox of the Cold War and LIberace, Ron Rose was part of this crazy world for nearly a century, falling just four years short of the big One Zero Zero. But that’s not why so many of us gathered to pay our respects. We were there because Ron Rose, besides being the most gracious and generous of individuals, was a newspaper man. It was a gathering of the clans, a celebration of someone whose working life as a knight of the keyboard stretched back to the Depression. Ron Rose was history. When he started at the Vancouver Sun as a copy boy in 1938, he reported for work in the celebrated Sun Tower, then topped by the paper’s majestic neon sign that rivalled Woodward’s big ‘W’ for night sky prominence. The door handles still bore the VW initials of the tower’s original owners, the Vancouver World, which closed in 1924.

Of course, we were also there because the man, himself, said it was okay to gather in his memory, so long as there were no “vainglorious” speeches, a word only a guy born in 1919 would use. “Just a few friends to share a few stories and a few drinks.” We complied, except for the ‘few’.

Ron Rose belied Nat King Cole’s hit song, Ramblin’ Rose. He never worked anywhere but the Sun, bending elbows with all the greats and unforgettable characters who passed through the paper’s portals during its long run as a carbon copy of the “Front Page”.  Pierre Berton, Jack Webster, Simma Holt, Jack Scott, Paul St. Pierre, Tom Ardies, gun-toting crime reporter Gar Macpherson, copy paper swallower Ivers Kelly, “Deadline” Jack Brooks, Fotheringham, Wasserman….Rose knew them all.

To say nothing of the gaggle of long-haired hippies with answers to everything who invaded the Sun newsroom in the 1960’s and 1970s. Ron Rose tolerated us all, calmly going about his business with the same unruffled demeanour that characterized every day he spent on the job.  Which didn’t mean he didn’t have bite or edge or views. He was just quiet about it. A strong union supporter, Rose was an early member of The Newspaper Guild, and, nearing 60, he agreed to join a slate dominated by us “young Turks” that successfully took on the Guild’s tired, incumbent leadership.

(Incidentally, the first employee to join the Guild was the paper’s cartoonist/illustrator Fraser Wilson. After Wilson was fired by the Sun for taking a partisan role in the bitter strike at the Vancouver Province in 1946, Wilson was hired to do a huge mural on the wall of the old Marine Workers and Boilermakers Hall on Pender Street. When the hall was demolished, Wilson’s masterpiece, portraying workers in B.C.’s many resource industries, was transferred to the main auditorium of the Maritime Labour Centre, where it remains today. Ron Rose’s memorial was held at the very same labour centre, just across the foyer from Wilson’s mural, a delightful connection between two Sun colleagues and early union members from so long ago.)

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(A small part of the Fraser Wilson mural.)

More significantly, Ron Rose was a pioneer in an area that now regularly produces front page news: aboriginal issues. But their concerns were routinely ignored by the mainstream media until the early 1970’s, when Rose became the first reporter in B.C. to cover, more or less full-time, “the Indian beat”. With his non-judgmental approach and striving, as he put it, “to cover aboriginal people as human beings rather than accident statistics”, Rose was widely praised on both sides of the deep divide that existed in those days.  His efforts were specifically singled out in Paul Tennant’s landmark study: The Indian Land Question in British Columbia, 1849-1989, and they brought Chief Bill Wilson to his memorial.

The blunt, outspoken Wilson became a storied figure in the bourgeoning aboriginal rights movement by going head to head with the first Prime Minister Trudeau and famously telling a group of non-native lawyers: “we should have killed you all”, referring not to the legal profession but early European settlers. Today, Wilson is perhaps better known as the father of Canada’s first aboriginal federal justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould. At the memorial, he saluted the Vancouver Sun and Rose for blazing a trail with their regular airing of aboriginal matters. “Had they not done that, my daughter might not be the Justice Minister,” said Wilson.

Over many a beer, the fiery chief and the placid, pipe-smoking Rose formed an unlikely bond. “He was the only white guy I ever liked,” Wilson said, his strong voice faltering with emotion. “I have to tell you, I loved him. I still love him, and I always will love him. He didn’t make me a story. He didn’t make me a hero. He made me a better man.”

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Rose was not the flashy, snap crackle, pop type of reporter who drew wows from the reader. But he was a pro’s pro. He knew how to find the answers that mattered and how to construct a clear, accurate story that informed the reader. Paul Knox, who went on to a stellar career at the Globe and Mail and is currently a professor emeritus at Ryerson’s excellent School of Journalism, began his newspapering days at the Sun in the summer of ’68. He remembers handing in an early assignment about a highway fatal that he had turned into a tortured, convoluted story. The guy filling in on the desk that day was Ron Rose. “Ron came over and calmly explained the secret: get your lede and a paragraph or two of essential facts, then stop trying to rank everything by order of importance. Just tell the story.” Knox said Rose’s simple truism remained with him through all his years of reporting and teaching aspiring journos the ins and outs of writing news stories.

Knox also recalled being in Victoria one time, when Rose was covering talks between the government and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. The two repaired for a drink to the Bengal Room. “We chatted about many things,” said Knox, “but what stuck was Ron telling me that years earlier, he’d been a candidate for city editor, but he didn’t get the job. ‘They told me I didn’t have the killer instinct.’” Given the heartfelt tributes and love from family, friends and ex-colleagues who filled the room at his memorial, it’s fair to say: sometimes, nice guys finish first.

One more thing. As the years advanced, Ron Rose continued to look forward. He embraced technology as best he could. He was active on Facebook, obtained a Twitter handle, , describing himself as “Old newspaperman trying to get with the New Age!”, and a year or two ago, took his first selfie. “It was really bad,” laughed his daughter Hilary. Yet he never lost his love for newspapers, and what they were about. In a note, to be read after he passed into what he termed “the Great Beyond”, Rose said: “I have had a long run, and left reasonably satisfied with my life.” But his final words were a call for us to keep up the good fight. “Like the rest of you, I was saddened at the defeat of newsprint by the digital revolution, and can only ask that you, as critical readers, do what you can to stem the unedited and often unsourced outpourings in the flood of social media. My best wishes, Ron.”

Amen, Brother Rose. May we be worthy of the cause.

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(Ron Rose at his 95th birthday celebration.) 

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SONATAS SCORE BIG, SUPER BOWL BLANKED

187463564The treasured Leila Getz, described in the program as “Head Honcho” of the Vancouver Recital Society, welcomed us with her usual enthusiasm. “Thank you for choosing András Schiff over the Super Bowl. The magic begins.” And indeed, it did.

Moments later, the stately, 62-year old master pianist, wearing a knee-length black tunic, walked out from the wings, acknowledged our applause, sat down on the cushioned bench, rested his hands on the top of the piano for 20 seconds of contemplation, and began to play.

While gazillions tuned into the greatest annual event in the history of the world, aka the Super Bowl, which surpasses even the Eurovision Song Contest in global importance, I sat entranced, with hundreds of others at the packed Vancouver Playhouse, for Schiff’s virtuoso recital. And to think, my first reaction when I discovered the cultural conflict between Super Bowl L and this long-ago booking was to ditch Schiff.

How could this life-long sports fan not prefer the performance of helmeted, gridiron goliaths bashing away at each other during those engaging snatches of football sandwiched between eight hours of commercials? Luckily, after one unsuccessful attempt to unload my Schiff ducat, I came to my senses. Denver and Carolina? Snore me big. Plus, I had PVR. András Schiff, it was.

The program by the renowned Hungarian-born maestro, no “hairy hound from Budapest” he, was sublime, even to these unclassical ears. Entitled The Last Sonatas, the program featured four pieces of music by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Schubert, all written during the composers’ final year of life. So there was a poignancy to them, too.

Still, I couldn’t help thinking of the Super Bowl, and how glad I was to be missing it. For one thing, András Schiff played 90 minutes straight. No half-time. Not a single time-out. No five-minute break for commercials every time he switched composers. Lovely. And mesmerizing.

Furthermore, what happened on the keyboard was easily the equivalent of what was taking place on the football field. You don’t believe me? You think a sonata is just a sonata? Take a gander at the commentary by wordsmith extraordinaire Donald G. Gislason in the programme notes.

Which is better? Another lame pass by Peyton Manning or the Star Wars-tinged Allegreto from Mozart’s Sonata in B flat major K. 570 “with its recurring tick-tock beat, [summoning] up the mechanical world of clockwork music, and [featuring} some robotic C-3PO-style humour in its cosmic leaps and mock-confused meanderings of imitative counterpoint”? To say nothing of Mozart’s ability to provide more than taco chips and chili at halftime. “[He is] like a celebrity chef challenged to create a multi-course meal using only a few ingredients,” Gislason tells us. “Mozart is masterfully economic in this movement, constantly re-using his material over and over again, making garnish and main course at will.”

I was hardly sorry to have missed all those third-and-outs by Manning and “Fig” Newton, when I got to hear the second movement from Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A Major D. 959: “A tour de force of compressed emotional energy that explodes into near-chaos in its middle section. It opens with a simple, sparsely textured, repetitive lament that circles fretfully round itself like a madman rocking back and forth in his hospital chair. More wide-ranging harmonic ravings lead to an outburst of unexpected violence and eventually to a dramatic confrontation.” Just like Von Miller taking down Carolina’s haughty, pouting quarterback.

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And okay, there have been worse half-time shows than Beyoncé, the Mars guy and Coldplay, but Beethoven’s Sonata in A flat major Op. 110 gave them a pretty good run for the money. “Beethoven lards his first section with rhythmic irregularities, dynamic surprises, dramatic pauses, and other raw signifiers of loutish humour,” enthuses Gislason. “The central section continues the mayhem with a series of tumble-down passages high in the register, rudely poked from time to time by off-beat accents”. With the added thrill of “[hearing] the same major chord, repeated over and over, getting louder and louder, leading back to the fugue theme…” A true pop sonata by that 57-year old hipster, Ludwig van. I slay, indeed….

So, all in all, with the help of a few, pretty fair country composers, András Schiff was my Super Bowl MVP, man of the match in every way. (In fact, the Stupor Bowl, still plodding along when I got home, was so boring, I wound up switching to curling, as its no offense and numbingly-long commercial breaks came to a stultifying close.)

I never bothered with the PVR.