It’s been a while since I attended the main Remembrance Day ceremony at Victory Square in downtown Vancouver, opting instead for the quieter, less grand but no less meaningful remembrance at the Japanese Canadian War Memorial from World War One in Stanley Park. Surrounded by trees, their leaves tinged with autumn, there is a sense of peace that appeals to me, along with the reminder of the shameful internment of 23,000 Japanese Canadians during World War Two.

But this year we bypassed both and went to Mountain View Cemetery for two very different commemorations that pinpointed individual veterans in a way large ceremonies cannot. We gathered on the edge of one of the Cemetery’s four Fields of Honour. At 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month, a small bell tolled 11 times, followed by two minutes of silence. After that, singers from musica intima and the Vancouver Bach Choir, plus some trumpeters and trombonists, fanned out to single graves. At each, they paused, collected their thoughts, read out the soldier’s name, then sang or sounded a short but heartfelt Phrase for Remembrance. Sombre and affecting, it prompted many of us to also wander among the graves, and reflect.

However, there are some former combatants buried at Mountain View whose graves have always gone unnoticed on Remembrance Day. Some lack even a nameplate. They were among the 1,500 brave Canadians who volunteered to fight for the Spanish Republic against Franco’s fascist forces in that country’s bloody civil war. Most were part of the renowned, all-Canadian Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion. More than 400 of them did not return home, a death rate nearly twice that of Canadian soldiers who fought in the horrendous killing fields of World War One. Many more were wounded.

But to this day they remain unrecognized for their sacrifice in the fight against fascism, a fight that Canada, itself, embraced just five months after Franco’s victory, when the country went to war against Nazi Germany. Worse, for many years, they were actually blacklisted, hounded and spied on by the RCMP, labelled “premature anti-fascists” for having the prescience and courage to take up arms against fascists at a time when Canada and other Western democracies refused to take sides in the Spanish Civil War. German and Italy had no such scruples, providing Franco with the arms and war planes that guaranteed his victory.

(David Yorke, collector and walking encyclopedia of the Spanish Civil War and Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, brought the flag.)

So, after paying respects to our official veterans, we joined a few others to commemorate Canadian volunteers of the Civil War known to be buried at Mountain View Cemetery. Our group had a large flag of the Spanish Republic, smaller flags and flowers. We were led by Pamela Vivian, whose great uncle Peter Johnson died on the Jarama front, south of Madrid. Her knowledge of the Mac-Paps is deep. With the assistance of helpful Cemetery staff, she was able to obtain a digital map of the gravesites of 16 veterans of the Spanish Civil War laid to rest at Mountain View.

Poignantly, we began at an unmarked grave site, containing the remains of six volunteers. From biographical sketches that have been compiled, we learned they died in poverty, some of chronic alcoholism (possibly PTSD). Like most Mac-Paps, they had a history of hard work and a pre-war involvement in unions, protests and left-wing movements.

Unlike a number of British volunteers who were left-wing intellectuals like George Orwell and Julian Bell, son of Bloomsbury icon Vanessa Bell, they came from the working class, on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, their hope for a better life done in by the Depression.

One of them was Edvin Backman. Like my mother’s family, he came to Canada from Finland, having spent a year in the Finnish cavalry. A miner, a farmer and a lumber worker, he had been knocked flat by the Depression. In common with five other Mac-Paps buried at Mountain View, he took  part in the storied On to Ottawa Trek of the unemployed in 1935 that was crushed by police with riot sticks on Dominion Day in Regina. Backman arrived in Spain on July 24, 1937, was wounded on Feb. 3, 1938 and managed to overcome government resistance to return to Canada early in 1939.

Tom Paterson was there, too. Born in Carlisle, England, his parents so impoverished they were forced, with their kids, into a so-called Poorhouse, he came to Canada in 1929, just in time for the Depression. He found intermittent work as a logger and, of all things, a harness maker, before becoming active with the Relief Camp Workers’ Union. In Spain, he fought with the Mac-Paps in the Ebro offensive, suffering bullet wounds in his right forearm and hip. He died in Vancouver at the age of 55.

Stories of the other Mac-Pap veterans buried anonymously are similar, differing only in detail.

With no identifying markers, we wondered where to place our flags and flowers. “I know there’s someone right here,” one of us said, looking down. That was good enough. We also placed a few mementos beneath a tree, which seemed a more peaceful location than open ground.

We moved to graves that were identified. French-Canadian Joseph Emery Godin, a stonecutter and labourer, went to Spain when he was 37. Frank Rutherford, whose ashes lie buried beside those of his wife Eileen, came to Canada from Scotland with his parents at the age of 14. He worked as a steam engineer and a fireman. He died at 65 of bronchial pneumonia.

At 38, Timothy Christie, a veteran of World War One, was one of the oldest to serve with the Mac-Paps. He was later transferred to the Anglo-American Battery, presumably because of his British nationality, which fought at Extramadura and Toledo. An electrician and construction worker, he was felled by a fatal heart attack at the age of 81.

Two of the Mac-Paps continued their fight against fascism by enlisting in World War Two. (Others were rejected because they fought in Spain.)

Baker, union organizer and another participant in the On to Ottawa Trek, Percy Hilton spent 13 months as a prisoner of war in Spain, before being released and making it back to Canada. He subsequently served with the Canadian Army, dying of heart failure at the age of 72. Because of his “official” veteran status, his grave is now marked by a recent military headstone paid for by Canada’s Last Post fund.

Wounded in Spain during a night action, Thomas Roberts later fought in World War Two with the Canadian Army, but he still has no military headstone. The Last Post Fund has been asked to provide one. Just 35, he died in 1950.

Among the rest, there was a Wobbly, a political commissar, organizers for the Sailors’ Union, miners and a veteran of the Finnish army. 

All were solemnly remembered.

(Ken Novakowski takes a moment to reflect, at the unmarked grave site of six veterans of the Spanish Civil War.)

Over the years, there have been numerous books and documentaries about the Mac-Paps. Impressive commemorative monuments have been erected in Toronto, Victoria and Ottawa, which lists the names of all those who fought in Spain. But more than 80 years after the end of the Civil War, and eight years after the passing of the last surviving member of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, at a time when there is such ongoing acknowledgement of Canada’s past historical wrongs, they remain forgotten at Remembrance Day ceremonies, ignored by Veterans’ Affairs and the Legion.

Recently, Canada issued an official apology for the World War Two internment of 600 Italian-Canadians, many of whom were suspected of having sympathies for Italy’s fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Yet, those Canadians who travelled across the ocean to actually fight fascism continued to be ostracized and shunned. How can that be?

No less than Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson had it right in 2001, when she spoke at the unveiling of the national monument to the Mac-Paps in Green Island Park in Ottawa. “It is fitting that we recognize now, 65 years later, the historic moment for which these men and women went to fight in a foreign war, a war which was not their own, a war in which Canada was not involved as a nation,’ she told those assembled. She cited the words of volunteer Dr. Norman Bethune: “Comrades who fell in angry loneliness, who died for us, I will remember you.”

It’s time.


I lost a dear friend recently. It was not the death of a living, breathing friend, but the sudden closure of the Slocan, with barely any notice, cut deep. The endearing East Vancouver eatery at the corner of Slocan and Hastings had been serving up decent food at reasonable prices for two years short of half a century. It wasn’t just my loss. This was a blow to much of the Hastings-Sunrise community, as far east from the posh West Side of Vancouver as you can go before crossing into beautiful Burnaby.

The Slocan’s popular culinary neighbour for the past 27 years, Bào Châu, is also down for the count. On its last day – a week after the Slocan shut its doors – customers lined up outside, clamoring for one last bowl of delicious, steaming pho. Both community mainstays are to be replaced by a “development” with the magic formula of including rental units.

The Slocan was the kind of ordinary, down-home diner that is a rarity in Vancouver these days, as big money sweeps over our increasingly-characterless city. It was not a place to attract the attention of the Globe and Mail’s illustrious restaurant critic, Alexandra Gill. But its fare – your basic breakfasts, burgers, BLTs and so on, plus Greek souvlakis for many years that reflected its long Greek-Canadian ownership – was always satisfying. There was also a modest bar, where one could pull up a stool and watch the Canucks lose again, and a patio that packed them in during the summer. Regulars included Indigenous families and others not exactly brimming with cash, attracted by its comfort zone and lightness on the wallet.

I was a regular, too, almost from the moment I returned to the city of my birth in 1998, after 10 years missing in action,  globetrotting from Paris to Toronto to Beijing. “Oh yes”, I murmured to myself, as I snuggled into one of the Slocan’s comfortable booths. “I’m really back.” In those days, I usually ordered the lamb souvlaki, despite the temptation of “cabbage roll Thursdays”. Later on, The Slocan became more of a lunch stop for my friend Ken Novakowski and me. We always ordered the Reuben with fries. Yum. It was something we looked forward to, catching up over bottomless cups of coffee and the dietary sin of French Fries instead of salad, with no well-meaning partners calling us to caloric account.

It was a gathering place. I happened upon high-profile labour leader Jack Munro there one night, with his son. They were having a bite to eat before heading to a Canucks game. “I come here all the time,” said Big Jack.

I was also at the Slocan the night after the opening of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and lo and behold, there was an older guy with the sleek white Olympic torch he had carried the day before on the last leg of its cross-Canada journey to BC Place. People were crowding around, posing for pictures. His run had been very early the previous morning through Stanley Park. He passed the flame to a tanned, beefy dude from California. You may have heard of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

He told me that the “I’m back!” hunk of muscle seemed more interested in how he looked to the cameras than paying any attention to the anonymous gent who touched torches with him.

It was a lovely homespun scene. Where did the torch-bearer go to show off his prized Olympic torch? To the Slocan, as distant from the glitzy world of the former governor of California as can be imagined. But this was his community, and the denizens, pleased and surprised that the Olympics had come, even in a small way, to their local diner, loved it.

The Slocan’s sudden closure caught many off guard, prompting an outpouring of sadness and fond memories on Facebook. “That’s so sad. I’ll miss the place,” wrote Perry Babiak. “The Slocan has been, for our family, an anchor and icon in the neighbourhood, an inviting , friendly place for 20 years.”

Said Grant Hardy: “The Slocan was one of the first places I started hanging out when I moved to this area, and it helped me meet so many people! I’m super sad it’s closing and really hope there’s a chapter 2.0 (as the owner has hinted). We need places like this in East Van.” Pat Ricia noted simply: “Aww that’s sad. Me n my husband been going there since the 80s.”

The Saturday after the Slocan closed up, I went by to snap a few photos, before its dreaded destiny with “the wrecking ball”.  Outside were two more regulars, staring forlornly at the darkened diner. They hadn’t heard the news and were stunned to find the doors shut, after so many years. We stood around reminiscing, telling stories, sharing menu favourites and how much the Slocan had meant to us. “I really would have liked a chance for a farewell visit,” said one, noting the line-up at the Bào Châu next door.

I had begun to get nervous about the Slocan several years ago, when I hopped a 29th Street bus, and my bus driver was the diner’s previous owner, Perry Bourpoulas. He said he liked the regular hours, benefits and pension of a union job. “I miss it, but I can come home at night and put my feet up, without getting all these phone calls.” I had missed Perry at the Slocan. From his perch at the till, he was ever-friendly, greeting customers, often by name, as they came up to pay the bill. I mentioned the fellow with the Olympic torch. “Oh yeah, that guy,” Perry responded. “He was head of the local Legion.” He knew everyone.

But he sold out after the landlord doubled the rent (sigh). The new owners expanded the bar, put an end to those special culinary days, like “Cabbage Roll Thursdays” (cabbage rolls courtesy of Perry’s mom!) and “Spaghetti Saturdays”. Prices went up a bit, the menu lost some of its flavour, but the essence of the Slocan remained relatively intact.

Perry Bourpoulas, at the helm of the 29th Street bus

As the bus rolled along, Perry said he’d been hearing rumours the Slocan had been sold again, and might be torn down for development. Sure enough, not long afterwards, one of those ominous city signs announcing redevelopment plans appeared outside. And now it has come to pass. The defunct diner is already surrounded by fencing.

A similar development went up a block away a few years ago, replacing a tired, past its prime Burger King. What’s on the main floor of the fairly decent building, which does include social housing? A small, walk-in Tim Hortons and a hole-in-the-wall Dairy Queen, neither with any connection to the community or a place to gather.

I fear something equally nondescript on the “retail” floor of the new development that replaces the Slocan.  Yes, there will also be some badly-needed rental units. That’s the way things are going these days, and goodness knows we need them. But at what cost? How do you put a dollar figure on the loss of a community and neighborhood institution that catered to those on the lower rungs of the income ladder. Where will those Indigenous families I often saw at the Slocan go now? Did anyone at city hall give a moment’s thought to this, as they rubber-stamped the demise of the Slocan and Bào Châu.

On Facebook, Pm Revere wrote simply: “NOOOOOO!” A place like the Slocan? Priceless.

A last beer at the Slocan


March 3, 1967. In the cramped newsroom of CKNW, the clock ticked towards 12 o’clock and the radio station’s noon newscast. With a minute or two to go, the phone rang. A young Cameron Bell picked it up and a voice said: “This is GS. Tell Warren: ‘Bennett convicted.’” Bell passed on the cryptic message. Warren Barker, the station’s news director/news reader, shot into action. He leapt up on his chair and onto the desk. Reaching behind a stack of tape recorders, he grabbed a particular file and raced out of the room. CKNW’s familiar news intro went on at the stroke of noon, followed by a brief silence, as Barker settled into his seat. Whereupon, mere moments after the verdict came down, he told listeners: “WAC Bennett has been found guilty in high court of the slander of George P. Jones, former chair of the BC procurement commission.” As Bell looked on in astonishment, Barker proceeded with a note-perfect recap of the trial, reconstructed on the spot from his meticulous file.

A few years later, in the wee small hours of Nov. 9, 1971, a stripper was finishing her “bottomless” act at Vancouver’s Club Zanzibar. Under cover of the final drum roll, someone in a false wig and moustache went up to a patron and shot him through the head. The same bullet wounded two other patrons. When the lights went up, three bodies lay on the floor and the killer was gone. While most of the city slept, Warren Barker was already at work, preparing the coming day’s news coverage. He heard the police radio calling every available car to the Club Zanzibar.  Barker got on the phone to reporter Scott Dixon, sleeping peacefully at home. “Are you doing anything?” Barker barked. “Not really,” the groggy Dixon replied. “Would you mind heading downtown to the Club Zanzibar?” Dixon arrived in time to see the place crawling with cops and ambulances carting away the victims.  His on-the-spot report left all media outlets in town playing catch-up on what remains one of the city’s most sensational – and still unsolved — killings.

During those golden days of journalism, with its vast newsroom of crack reporters and editors, the Vancouver Sun was far and away the best paper in Western Canada. Yet “every hour on the hour” the Sun’s assignment editor dutifully switched on the paper’s tinny, transistor radio for the regular news report on CKNW. With only a handful of reporters, ‘NW covered the city so thoroughly that the resource-rich Vancouver Sun relied on its newscasts to help keep tabs of everything that was happening. Woe to the editor who forgot to tune in.

The person linking these three accounts was, of course, the  legendary news director of CKNW, Warren Barker, who died a few months ago at the age of 92. For 32 years, working ungodly hours, with an infallible knack for hiring talent, Barker masterminded a system of his own making and a small but mighty newsroom that dominated hard news coverage in Vancouver and made CKNW one of the best local news stations in North America.

Not much known to the public beyond the authoritative voice that once read the news and subsequently, his regular business commentaries, Barker was recognized by his peers as the best in the business. Indeed, he set the standard for the entire broadcast industry. Acclaimed BC Broadcast Performer of the Year in 1985, he received the Bruce Hutchison Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, and in 1998, he was inducted into the Canadian Broadcasting Hall of Fame.

Warren Barker at home, in his newsroom

Barker might have stepped out of a radio version of The Front Page. Pounding the keys on an old typewriter (reporters learned to recognize angry memos by the keys cutting right through the paper), phone receiver cradled on his shoulder, a cheap Old Port cigarillo in his mouth, surrounded by files, he set the city’s news agenda every morning. His only concession to sartorial resplendence was a loosely-knotted tie he hung on the door handle. He would slip it on, whenever he had to meet the station’s “suits”.

Few realized CKNW managed all this with just a small fleet of reporters — two on days, one on nights, plus the incomparable George Garrett. And it was out in New Westminster, far from the pulse of Vancouver. But Barker had a system. It involved endless phone checks (“Anything new?”), cubbyhole newsrooms at city hall and the cop shop, tips from carefully cultivated sources, and the pièce de resistance, a filing system like no other.

In the words of Cameron Bell, who went on from his Barker tutelage to revolutionize local TV news at BC-TV: “In an era before computers, in a newsroom the size of a sedan, Barker would carefully construct ongoing files for ongoing stories. They’d be put away in files for instant recall. Barker could retrieve information faster than the most computerized databases today.”

Garrett, who spent nearly 20 years working under Barker, said his boss kept files on everything. Fire deaths, traffic deaths, court cases, labour stories, status of the Mission River Gauge that measured the annual Fraser River freshet…In fact, just about every story reported on ‘NW found its way into Barker’s extraordinary filing system, in chronological order. “And all before computers,” marvelled Garrett.

Garrett was a prime example of Barker’s eye for talent. He started on the station’s news desk in 1956, doing phone checks in the days of “Dollar a Holler” that enticed listeners to call in news tips. Then it was onto afternoons in a CKNW news station wagon with loafs of Sunbeam Bread depicted prominently on the sides. Garrett got sidetracked into radio sales and an ill-fated five months managing a radio station in Trail. Barker quickly hired him back as a reporter, with the insight to take him off regular assignment. “Just go and dig up whatever you want,” he told him. Left to himself, not bound to specific hours, the intrepid Garrett, who, like his boss, never seemed to sleep, broke story after story. “I never recall him asking what I was working on,” said Garrett.

While Garrett remained the station’s mainstay, a raft of others hired and tutored by Barker passed through the newsroom, paving their way to lustrous careers elsewhere. Harry Phillips spent 6 years at ‘NW, before moving on to CBC-TV and a 30-year career as a top producer for ABC News. TV reporter, anchor, Journal co-host and award-winning documentary maker Russ Froese was there five years. Other well-known CKNW alumni include Brian Coxford, Scott Dixon, the two Ted’s, Field and Chernecki, Paul Heaney, John Daly, briefly Pamela Martin, Belle Puri and Doriana Temolo, with her melodious signoff.  

Barker also believed in hiring women. Longtime CBC journalist Belle Puri began her career at CKNW, working a 12-hour shift on Sundays. She was green as a grasshopper, but Barker was patient. “I didn’t even know how to type! But I managed,” Puri recalled a few years ago. “(Warren) taught me how to be a reporter….He was the best boss ever. We never wanted to let him down.” Barker also gave her a chance to fill in on weekend sportscasts, setting the stage for the pioneer hiring of Laura Ornest as a full-time member of CKNW’s sports team.  Yvonne Eamor and Marlaina Gayle were other prominent women reporters Barker brought to the station.

Warren Earl Barker was born into a farming family near Okotoks, Alberta, a year before the onset of the Depression. He got the radio bug early, with stints at CJCA in Edmonton and CKRD in Red Deer. He abandoned Alberta for the West Coast in the early 1950s, dashing his father’s hopes he would one day take over the family farm. Barker began working at CKNW in 1952, doing the multi-task gavotte that one did at radio stations in those days. He backed up owner Bill Rae on his radio show, “Ranger’s Cabin”. He hosted a radio quiz show “Fiesta!”, and, best of all, he helped write and voice “Just For Fun”, a homespun comedy show starring Wistful Warren Barker and Hallucinations P. Davis, aka the stations’ longtime program director Hal Davis.

(Barker had a droll, understated wit. Garrett recalled playing penny crib with Ed McKitka,  Surrey’s unforgettable former mayor, during down time of his breach of trust trial. When McKitka was convicted, Garrett ended his report with “and I lost 50 cents to him playing crib”. Barker quickly reminded him: “I’ll have you know, Mr. Garrett, that gambling debts are not a legitimate expense.”)

Barker soon found his forte in the newsroom, where he resided until 1991. He worked relatively normal shifts at first, but regular hours were not his thing. He soon expanded to overnights and well into the morning.

Barker also expected his reporters to work hard, but he treated them well. If, say you worked three hours overtime, Barker would often put you down for six hours in order to receive the double-pay union reporters got, said Scott Dixon.  “And once he hired you, he trusted you. He left you alone to do your work. He was such a pleasure to work for. We all worked hard, because nobody worked harder than he did.”

Eventually, however, the times began to catch up with Barker and his beloved newsroom. With the advance of the Internet, radio ceased to be the force it once was. Distant owners nursed the bottom line more than they cared about people. Investigative radio reporting gradually disappeared, replaced by ever-shorter, quick hits. At the still young age of 63, Barker was put out to pasture by “the suits”, although he continued to do a trenchant, daily business commentary for a few more years.

At the packed reception to mark his heading off into the sunset, well-wishers gathered under a large banner that read: “Our Boss. Our Friend. Our Mentor.” Ever the newsman, Barker reminded them: “I did not retire. I was fired!” We will never see his like again.

A celebration of Warren Barker’s long, good life will be held Thursday, Sept. 23 from 1-4 p.m., at the Burnaby Mountain Golf Course Clubhouse, 7600 Halifax Street.

He leaves his son Brian (Diana), Lee (Wendy), daughter Karen, four grandchildren, three great grandsons, and stepsons Bruce (Trish), Brent (Peri). He was predeceased by his first wife Ronnie, second wife Norma and his sister Betty.


With the recent announcement that 215 unmarked, children’s graves have been discovered on what were the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, June 21 has never taken on more resonance as this country’s National Indigenous Peoples Day.

For Indigenous people, it is a day for celebration of their distinctive heritage and culture that has survived more than 150 years of Canadian colonialist efforts to wipe it out.  And indeed, it is thriving as perhaps never before. At the same time, however, is there anything colder and more heartless than the unmarked grave of a child, not even given a name? Amid the celebration of National Indigenous Peoples Day, there was bound to be renewed grieving and anger over the genocide of Canada’s criminal residential schools brought home so devastatingly by the Kamloops discovery.

I first heard Dennis Saddleman read Monster, his long, powerful poem about his experience at the Kamloops Residential School, a few days after last month’s revelation of the unmarked graves by Kukpi7 Rosanne Casmir, chief of the local Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nations. It was broadcast on CBC Radio’s The Current, and, like many who heard it, I was overwhelmed by its blunt imagery and unvarnished hatred directed at the Kamloops school. Saddelman, who lives in Merritt, had recited the poem as part of his testimony before a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Kamloops in May of 2013. “That was amazing,” said Commission chair Murray Sinclair, after he finished.“ It certainly expressed the feeling of a lot of people”. He directed a copy of the poem become part of the Commission’s archives.

Since then, Saddleman’s poem has become widely known, particularly in the past month. Most attention has focused on the intensity of the anger he spits out about his 11 years at “The Monster” and how it robbed him of all sense of self worth. But there is a second part to the poem that tends to get submerged by his unforgettable loathing of the Kamloops school. It is a message of forgiveness and above all, hope. At some point, Saddleman realized he could not totally move forward with his life until he confronted “The Monster” and the pain and trauma he suffered there. He does so in way that is both unexpected and as powerful, at least in my view, as any of the lines that went before it.

If you haven’t already heard or read Dennis Saddleman’s wrenching poem of rage and eventual peace, here it is. Lest We Forget.


By Dennis Saddleman









































TASTED MY STRONG PRIDE                                              















Your stomach growled at me every time I broke the school rules

Your stomach was full You burped

You felt satisfied You rubbed your belly and you didn’t care      

You didn’t care how you ate up my native Culture

You didn’t care if you were messy

if you were piggy

You didn’t care as long as you ate up my Indianness

I hate you Residential School I hate you          

You’re a monster

Your veins clotted with cruelty and torture

Your blood poisoned with loneliness and despair

Your heart was cold it pumped fear into me

I hate you Residential School I hate you          

You’re a monster

Your intestines turned me into foul entrails

Your anal squeezed me

squeezed my confidence

squeezed my self respect          

Your anal squeezed

then you dumped me

Dumped me without parental skills

without life skills

Dumped me without any form of character      

without individual talents

without a hope for success

I hate you Residential School I hate you                              

You’re a monster

You dumped me in the toilet then      

You flushed out my good nature

my personalities

I hate you Residential School I hate you

You’re a monster………I hate hate hate you

Thirty three years later        

I rode my chevy pony to Kamloops

From the highway I saw the monster

My Gawd! The monster is still alive

I hesitated I wanted to drive on

but something told me to stop  

I parked in front of the Residential School

in front of the monster

The monster saw me and it stared at me

The monster saw me and I stared back

We both never said anything for a long time      

Finally with a lump in my throat

I said, “Monster I forgive you.”

The monster broke into tears

The monster cried and cried

His huge shoulders shook          

He motioned for me to come forward

He asked me to sit on his lappy stairs

The monster spoke

You know I didn’t like my Government Father

I didn’t like my Catholic Church Mother          

I’m glad the Native People adopted me

They took me as one of their own

They fixed me up Repaired my mouth of double doors

Washed my window eyes with cedar and fir boughs

They cleansed me with sage and sweetgrass        

Now my good spirit lives

The Native People let me stay on their land

They could of burnt me you know instead they let me live

so People can come here to school restore or learn about their culture

The monster said, “I’m glad the Native People gave me another chance    

I’m glad Dennis you gave me another chance

The monster smiled

I stood up I told the monster I must go

Ahead of me is my life. My people are waiting for me                  

I was at the door of my chevy pony        

The monster spoke, “Hey you forgot something

I turned around I saw a ghost child running down the cement steps

It ran towards me and it entered my body

I looked over to the monster I was surprised

I wasn’t looking at a monster anymore            

I was looking at an old school In my heart I thought

 This is where I earned my diploma of survival

I was looking at an old Residential School who

became my elder of my memories

I was looking at a tall building with four stories 135

stories of hope

stories of dreams

stories of renewal

and stories of tomorrow

This is Dennis Saddleman’s strong, affecting reading of his poem before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2013.

In an interview with his local paper, the Merritt Herald, shortly after the 215 children’s graves were discovered, the poet talked about his terrible experiences at the school and how he survived.

The CBC asked Saddleman how he came to call his poem The Monster.

“He described being six years old and standing in front of a huge, red-brick building. The double doors opened and several figures in dark robes emerged — the priests, nuns and brothers who ran the institution.

“Saddleman remembers being very scared, and said ‘that’s when that word monster came into my head.

“’Those black creatures … they dragged me through the double doors. And soon as I went through those doors I felt like that was it; the monster was eating me up,’ he said.”


On a bleak, wintry weekend in November of 2014, my brother and I made a pilgrimage to “the north country fair, where the winds hit heavy on the borderline” in search of the roots of Bob Dylan. It was an unforgettable trip that richly increased my understanding of the mysterious forces that shaped a relatively ordinary teenager in the Minnesota town of Hibbing and helped turn him into the Shakespeare of our age.

We set out Friday morning from my brother’s home in Thunder Bay. Once across that “borderline”, we travelled south along Highway 61 (Revisited). There was no sign of a promoter putting some bleachers out in the sun. We were soon in Duluth, where Dylan was born as Robert Allen Zimmerman 80 years ago, on May 24, 1941, six months or so before Pearl Harbour. The future Nobel Prize winner was brought home to the second floor of a modest, wood- frame duplex rented by his parents Abe and Beatty, not far up the hill from downtown Duluth.

The Lake Superior port city had been more interesting in the old days, when it was a hotbed of socialism, full of Wobblies, Red Finns and immigrant workers from all over Europe. In 2014, although admittedly difficult for any northern city to show its best in November, there seemed a sense of decay in the city’s historic downtown area. Many of its fine, early 20th century buildings were caked in grime. Few pedestrians braved the late afternoon chill. 

The Zimmerman’s lived in Duluth tuntil Dylan was six, when they moved 70 miles north to Hibbing. But the city was not without its influences. In his engrossing memoir, Chronicles, Dylan recalled hearing “the heavy rumble of the foghorns (of the big lake freighters that) dragged you out of your senses by the neck….As a child, slight, introverted and asthma-stricken, the sound was so loud, so enveloping, I could feel it in my whole body and it made me feel hollow. Something out there could swallow me up.”

Duluth also has an enormous armoury, where popular, touring performers of the day made regular appearances. On Jan. 31, 1959, Dylan and some friends made the trip down from Duluth to catch Buddy Holly’s Winter Dance Party tour at the Armoury. Three days later, the life of the much-loved, young rock star was cut short in a plane crash, along with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. Dylan has often mentioned their appearance in Duluth as a pivotal moment in his life. Accepting Album of the Year at the 1998 Grammys for Time Out Of Mind, he said: “I just want to say that when I was 16 or 17 years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play at Duluth National Guard Armory and I was three feet away from him… and he looked at me. And I just have some kind of feeling that he was – I don’t know how or why – but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way.”    

And finally, the startling first verse of Dylan’s dense, 11-minute masterpiece, Desolation Row, is not based, as I thought for many years, on one of his incomparable, dream-like images, but on a real event that took place in Duluth, not far from where the Zimmermans lived. In 1920, three Black employees of a touring circus were strung up from a corner lamp post on the mistaken belief they had raped a white girl. A grisly photo of the mob posing with the corpses was made into a postcard. One of Dylan’s uncles remembered seeing it as a youth. The incident is commemorated in Desolation Row. “They’re selling postcards of the hanging/They’re painting the passports brown/The beauty parlor is filled with sailors/The circus is in town.” My brother and I visited a haunting memorial to the three innocent Blacks where the lynchings took place. I wrote about it all in a previous Mickleblog.

Then it was off to Hibbing. With its oddball name and nowhere locale, Dylan’s hometown had taken on a magical air in my imaginings for so many years. I mean, did Hibbing even exist?

Our first step was Hibbing High School. With its marble staircase, brass handrails and large imposing pillars adorning the school’s entranceway, it was unlike any high school I had ever seen. The enormous, sprawling structure, built in 1920 for $4 million, is considered an especially opulent example of Jacobethan architecture and was soon known as ‘the castle in the woods”. But what the heck was this huge, costly citadel of education doing in nondescript Hibbing? Apparently, the school’s design and construction was financed by local mining interests who wanted to entice immigrant labourers by displaying their commitment to a good education for their children.

The school’s vast interior includes an absurdly large, 1,800 seat auditorium with crystal chandeliers. The auditorium is legendary in Dylan lore as the place where a garage band fronted by student Robert Zimmerman pounded out 1950s rock and roll at a school assembly, until the principal could stand the noise no longer and pulled the plug. In a wry assessment 30 years later, Dylan scholar Stephen Scobie of Victoria observed: “Every stage Bob Dylan has played on since has been, after Hibbing High School Auditorium, an anticlimax.”

We peered through the glass-paned front doors at the stairs leading to the darkened hallways and rows of lockers, enjoying thoughts of how familiar it would have been to the teen-aged Dylan. From most accounts he enjoyed life at Hibbing High School, signing up for the Latin  and Social Studies Club and citing his ambition in the high school yearbook “to join Little Richard”. The photo of a very unwaif-like Dylan is sandwiched between too other end-of-the-alphabet students, Barbara Yeshe and Shirley Zubich.

Dylan didn’t have far to walk to high school. His house, with its distinctive flat-topped roof, was just two  blocks away at 2425 7th Ave., now renamed Bob Dylan Drive. For Dylan fanatics, this is the mother-lode, his home for a dozen years until leaving in 1959 for the University of Minneapolis. A mere two years after that, he had written Blowin’ In the Wind, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Girl From the North Country and fame was nigh. Under the pale winter sun, the nicely re-painted, stucco house seemed deserted. Front steps and sidewalk were unshovelled. Icicles hung from the eaves. I looked up at the windows of Bob’s bedroom on the second floor. He said, once: “In the winter, everything was still, nothing moved. Eight months of that…you can have some amazing hallucinogenic experiences doing nothing but looking out your window.” My brother and I posed for pictures, and left, reluctantly.

We hit Hibbing’s desolate downtown Sunday morning. Wisps of snow blew up and down the town’s wide main drag, Howard Street. The names of the storefronts had changed, but the streetscape seemed little different from what it must have been like during Dylan’s time. Here were the pizza joint, record store, juke box cafés, movie theatre and small department stores that he grew up with. Most are long gone, given the shopping malls that have sapped business from main streets everywhere. But the vintage bowling alley where Bob bowled is still there. So too is the massive Androy Hotel, now an apartment building for seniors (no, Bob isn’t moving in…), where his bar mitzvah was held. Alas, Zimmy’s, a cabaret-style bar that had hoped to capitalize on Dylan’s Hibbing connections, had gone out of business.

We ended our pilgrimage with a short trip out of town to the reason for Hibbing’s existence, the largest open-pit iron mine in the world. Pictures don’t do justice to its enormity, said to be three miles wide and 500 feet deep. Huge earthmovers in the distance were dwarfed by the sheer size of the mine. Being Sunday, nothing moved. It was quiet, except for the whistling of the bitterly-cold wind. One sensed the ghosts of previous miners and the cyclical boom and bust of their fortunes. Five years after leaving Hibbing, Dylan wrote and recorded North Country Blues, a moving song about the desperate plight of an iron miner’s wife, left to care for three children after a mine shutdown. Joan Baez does a beautiful cover of the song.

As we headed back to Thunder Bay, making sure to stop at the site of the “World’s Largest Free-Standing Hockey Stick” in self-styled Hockeytown, USA (aka Eveleth), I felt I had a much deeper sense of how Dylan came to be. Growing up in the north, in an isolated place like Hibbing, cut off from “big city” distractions, with long winters and characteristics uniquely its own, he must have acquired a sensibility and way of looking at the world he might never have had if, say, he had grown up in a place like summery San Diego. That was hammered home from my first look at Hibbing’s forlorn but singular main street, followed by the scarred landscape of its open-pit mine, both in the teeth of November.  Despite many elements that could be found anywhere in the USA, Hibbing was not a small town like the others. And it gave us the greatest songwriter of our era.

At 23, Dylan acknowledged his roots as part of his under-rated 11 Outlined Epitaphs on the back cover of The Times They Are A-Changing. Referring to Hibbing, he wrote: “the town I grew up in is the one that has left me with my legacy visions/it was not a rich town/my parents were not rich/it was not a poor town/an my parents were not poor/it was a dyin town/…..I know I shall meet the snowy North again/but with changed eyes nex time round/t walk lazily down its streets/an linger by the edge of town/find old friends if they’re still around/talk t the old people/an the young people/running yes. . ./but stopping for a while/embracing what I left/an loving it—for I learned by now/never t expect/what it can not give me/”


The recent passing of Tom Berger brought an outpouring of tributes and accolades for his long, unparalleled career as a legal groundbreaker and social justice advocate for Canada’s Indigenous people. As Bob Rae, former NDP premier of Ontario, interim federal Liberal leader and currently Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, put it: “No non-Indigenous person has done more to advance the rights of Indigenous people in Canada and globally. He inspired thousands and enlightened millions.”

Less well-known is that Tom Berger got his first taste of fighting against injustice as a young Vancouver labour lawyer in a case that stemmed directly from one of the city’s most devastating disasters.

On the afternoon of June 17, 1958, two spans of the Second Narrows Bridge being built across Burrard Inlet suddenly collapsed, tumbling workers and twisted steel into the deep ocean waters far below. The tragedy claimed 19 lives, including 14 members of Local 97 of the Ironworkers Union. It remains Vancouver’s worst industrial accident. Looking out from his downtown office window, Tom Berger was among thousands of Vancouverites who gasped in astonishment that day at the sight of the two collapsed spans. Less than a year later, he would be in court, representing some of those same union ironworkers, who had been on the bridge and survived when it went down.

By the spring of 1959, the project was back on track. But on June 23, ironworkers employed on the bridge joined a province-wide strike by Local 97, halting construction once again. The work stoppage left a south section of the bridge overhanging a busy roadway, upheld only by falsework.

Dominion Bridge sought a court injunction ordering the ironworkers to finish the job, on the grounds of safety. The company claimed that an earthquake or some other event could bring the structure down on traffic. The ironworkers retorted: if the section is at risk of collapse, it must be unsafe for us to work on.

The issue facing Berger and his clients was straight-forward: could ironworkers on a legal strike be ordered by the court to complete the overhanging section of the bridge, on the grounds of safety? The presiding judge, Mr. Justice Alexander Malcolm Manson of the BC Supreme Court, sided with the company. He ordered the union to ensure the section’s completion.

The injunction was ignored, and the legal battle was on. The fresh-faced, 26-year old Berger faced off against the stern, crusty Justice Manson, 50 years his senior, who was called to the bar way back in 1908. Appealing the injunction on behalf of Local 97, Berger argued the judge had no authority to order a union to abandon a legal strike. Not only that, “if this bridge is in a dangerous condition then it is just as dangerous if the men are on the bridge, as if they (remain on) strike,” the young union lawyer contended. The judge responded by issuing an added order that the union specifically instruct its members to return to work to finish the job.

When no one showed up on the next work day, Dominion Bridge asked the judge to find leaders of Local 97 and 31 striking ironworkers guilty of criminal contempt of court for defying Justice Manson’s injunction. Union leaders responded with sworn affidavits that they had, in fact, instructed members to return to work. Their instructions had simply not been obeyed. The judge was furious. “We have in Canada what is known as the rule of the law,” he thundered. “We live by that. And the rule of law must be maintained.” Turning towards their lawyer, he concluded: “If you have anything to say, Mr. Berger, now is your chance.”

Berger was more than ready. He pointed out that union leaders had obeyed the injunction by telling members to go back to work. But nothing could force individual ironworkers to resume building the bridge. Then, he revealed his legal ace in the hole. He told the astonished judge that his position was vindicated by none other than the most sacred of all British/Commonwealth legal documents, the Magna Carta, itself. The hallowed charter of rights had been agreed to by King John on the fields of Runnymede in 1215. And there, in Chapter 15, were the words: “No free man shall be distrained to make bridges.”

This referred to former feudal obligations eliminated by the Magna Carta. Berger argued the document was “just as much in force in British Columbia today as it was in England in 1215.” Judge Manson accused the youthful brash barrister of playing to the gallery. He brushed the Magna Carta aside, along with all other positions advanced on behalf of the Ironworkers.

More than 40 years later, writing in his autobiography One Man’s Justice, Tom Berger had not forgotten the case. “I thought I had the answer to the injunction; then I thought I had the answer to the judgment requiring the union to order the men back to work; then I thought I had the answer to the company’s application for sequestration of the union’s assets. But each time the judge veered off in a new direction,” he wrote. “The judge was inventing his own procedure, because none in the books suited his purpose.”

Incensed that no ironworkers had yet gone to work, Judge Manson ordered sheriffs to round up those they could find and bring them to court. He began questioning them on his own. The first time Berger raised an objection, the judge angrily dismissed it. The second time, he snapped at Berger: “Just sit down. I am doing this. You keep your seat.” A third time, Judge Manson threatened Berger with contempt of court for interrupting his questioning of ironworker Eric Guttman. The crowded courtroom erupted in jeers. Despite silencing Berger, the judge got nowhere with Guttman, who corroborated the union’s contention that he had been told to go back to work on the bridge.  “But it is a free country and nobody can force me to go to work to build a bridge if I don’t want to,” he declared.

The judge was not amused. In a startling display of vindictiveness, he found the union’s two business agents and its president guilty of criminal contempt of court, fining them $3,000 each, a huge sum in those days, with the option of a year in jail.  In the meantime, they were arrested and sent to Oakalla. The three men were eventually released, after the labour movement rallied to pay their fines. Local 97, itself, was fined $10,000 and Eric Guttman assessed $100. Ironworkers were not the only ones to fell the sting of Judge Manson’s wrath. George North, editor of The Fisherman union newspaper, was also fined $3,000 and jailed for 30 days. His sin? He had the effrontery to write an editorial suggesting that injunctions don’t catch fish or build bridges. That was contempt of court, too, the judge ruled. Such were the times.

A negotiated settlement ended the ironworkers’ strike shortly afterwards, and on Aug. 25, 1960, the completed Second Narrows Bridge was opened at last to traffic.

The union’s bitter legal tussle also ended happily. In a unanimous judgment, the BC Court of Appeal overturned all of Judge Manson’s contempt of court rulings against the ironworkers, ordering the return of every last cent of the $19,000 in fines he imposed. (However, the contempt of court judgment against George North was upheld. The union editor was forced to serve out every one of his 30 days.) At the same time, the Appeal Court also made a point of telling Berger that Judge Manson had been wrong to criticize his objections and threaten him with contempt of court.

“Justice Manson was no hypocrite,” Berger wrote in his auto-biography. “He hated unions….There were no long-winded rationales for his judgments. He was out to get you, and he did.”

One more development awaited for Berger and the ironworkers to savour. After Judge Manson’s vituperative performance on the bench, the government made it mandatory for superior court judges to retire at the age of 75. In some BC legal circles, it became known as “the Manson law”.

As a postscript, Tom Berger later became prominent in the NDP, with strong backing from organized labour. In 1968, he became provincial leader of the party, narrowly edging Dave Barrett in a bitter leadership contest. Near unanimous support from union delegates was key to Berger’s victory. It took years for the rift in the party to heal, which, long after he had left the NDP, was still referred to as the Berger-Barrett split.

Note: I am indebted to Eric Jamieson and his excellent book, Tragedy at Second Narrows, for much of the narrative details in this account.

Two songs have been written about the Second Narrows tragedy, one by well-known US country singer Jimmy Dean

And a more heartfelt one by the great Stompin’ Tom Connors:

Finally, For more on the incomparable Tom Berger, Justine Hunter’s excellent obit in the Globe and Mail is here:


2020 has been a terrible year for so many reasons, not least the loss of nearly two millions lives around the world from the scourge of COVID-19. None wanted to die. The vast majority had families who were left behind to mourn. Yet, because of pandemic restrictions, most were unable to do so, beyond small private remembrances. For the most part, there have been no gatherings to celebrate the life of the departed, proper send-offs which are always such a solace.

And of course, the same has been true for those who did not die from COVID19. We are left alone with our grief.

Very recently, a very good, longtime friend of mine died unexpectedly.  Her death was a terrible shock to myself and the large number of people who knew and loved her. Some of us have been in touch with each other, talking it out, sharing our feelings and memories. One of them forwarded a poem by the late Mary Oliver. It is about death, but….well, just read it. If you are among those who have lost someone close to you this year, may it bring you comfort.


Coming down

out of the freezing sky

with its depths of light,

like an angel,

or a Buddha with wings,

it was beautiful

and accurate,

striking the snow and whatever was there

with a force that left the imprint

of the tips of its wings—-

five feet apart—-and the grabbing

thrust of its feet,

and the indentation of what had been running

through the white valleys

of the snow —-

* * * *

and then it rose, gracefully,

and flew back to the frozen marshes,

to lurk there,

like a little lighthouse,

in the blue shadows—-

so I thought:

maybe death

isn’t darkness, after all,

but so much light

wrapping itself around us—-

as soft as feathers—-

that we are instantly weary

of looking, and looking, and shut our eyes,

* * * *

not without amazement,

and let ourselves be carried,

as through the translucence of mica,

to the river

that is without the least dapple or shadow—-

that is nothing but light—-scalding, aortal light—-

in which we are washed and washed

out of our bones.


“Poetry is the past that breaks out in our hearts.”

Rilke. Quoted by Margaret Atwood.

(Note: apologies to my loyal subscribers, who received a number of tests, as I tried to fix the formatting, so verses would be separated, and each line not appear with a space between them….I failed, so I’ve decided to put asterisks between the verses. Solutions gratefully received….)

Even this perpetually-gloomy Gus has been taken aback by the deepening inroads carved out by the second onslaught of COVID-19. Out here in British Columbia, which was hailed far and wide for its success in fighting off the first wave last spring, the number of new cases and deaths has been higher per-capita than big bad Ontario for some time. And the mood is souring, even in the face of uplifting news from the vaccine front.

That’s a big change from those scary, early months. As we battened down the hatches for the first time, a sense of solidarity and community took root. Balcony arias rang out. In neighbourhoods across Canada, we huzzahed and tattooed pots and pans to hail our heroic health-care workers. Those who dared to stray from lockdown restrictions were called out and shamed. Marooned in their homes, people took up baking, gardening bird-watching, binge-watching The Three Stooges – okay, that was me —  and, of all things, going for daily walks. People shared uplifting songs “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,” wrote Shakespeare, who had gone through a pandemic, himself. I did my own bit to calm the nation’s psyche. I started a poetry blog. It lapsed, along with the virus, during our relatively carefree summer.

But now COVID-19  is back, in full fighting form, without nearly as much collective unity. We are frazzed. Worn down and cranky, we are still doing our part by mostly staying home and wearing masks when we do venture out. But we are not happy about it. Even Dr. Bonnie Henry is taking brickbats.

So, yep, it’s time for a return of my celebrated poetry blog. Turning away from one’s smart phone, taking a deep breath and reading a poem or two — preferably not Sylvia Plath or To An Athlete Dying Young — is still hard to beat as a way of soothing the agitated soul. Plus, as Margaret Atwood pointed out, when asked why many turn to poetry in times of trouble: “It’s short.”

The indomitable Atwood does know a thing or two about poetry. Amid all the extraordinary hullabaloo and fame that descended on her so unexpectedly late in life for a book she wrote in the 1980’s, it’s often forgotten that she started out as a poet.  And remains a poet. Recently, I bought Dearly, her first collection of poetry in 13 years. That’s about 50 years after I plunked down five bucks for my first Atwood poetry, a second-hand copy the of The Circle Game, for which she won the Governor-General’s Award in 1966.

Dearly is dedicated to her life partner, Graeme Gibson (“in absentia”), who died in 2019, several years after being diagnosed with vascular dementia. Not surprisingly, there is a sombre, reflective mood in many of the poems, as Atwood, faces the inevitably of her husband’s decline and ages, herself. Of course, Atwood being Atwood, there are also poems about zombies, werewolves, the sex life of slugs and pointed polemics on “Murdered Sisters” and the environmental devastation wrought by plastic. But mostly, they are human poems, meditations on memories, the wonders of nature and the mysteries of love and loss.

In several poems, Atwood admits to struggling to find just the right word, as she drifts from thought to thought. This is not the brilliant, intellectual, often ironic wordsmith whose muse blazed so fiercely in her early poetry. These are simpler poems. Yet they still stir.

This is the book’s affecting title poem, which pretty well speaks for itself.


It’s an old world, fading now.

Dearly did I wish.

Dearly did I long for.

I loved him dearly.


I make my way along the sidewalk

mindfully, because of my wrecked knees

about which I give less of a shit

than you may imagine

since there are other things, more important –

wait for it, you’ll see –


bearing half a coffee

in a paper cup with –

dearly do I regret it –

a plastic lid –

trying to remember what words once meant.



How was it used?

Dearly beloved.

Dearly beloved, we are gathered.

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here

in this forgotten photo album

I came across recently.


Fading now,

the sepias, the black and whites, the colour prints,

everyone so much younger.

The Polaroids.

What is a Polaroid? asks the newborn.

Newborn a decade ago.


How to explain?

You took the picture and then it came out the top.

The top of what?

It’s that baffled look I see a lot.

So hard to describe

the smallest details of how –

all these dearly gathered together –

of how we used to live.

We wrapped up garbage

in newspaper tied with string.

What is newspaper?

You see what I mean.


String though, we still have string.

It links things together.

A string of pearls.

That’s what they would say.

How to keep track of the days?

Each one shining, each one alone.

each one then gone.

I’ve kept some of them in a drawer on paper,

those days, fading now.

Beads can be used for counting.

As in rosaries.

But I don’t like stones around my neck.


Along this street there are many flowers,

fading now because it is August

and dusty, and heading into fall.

Soon the chrysanthemums will bloom,

flowers of the dead, in France.

Don’t think this is morbid.

It’s just reality.


So hard to describe the smallest details of flowers.

This is a stamen, nothing to do with men.

This is a pistil, nothing to do with guns.

It’s the smallest details that foil translators

and myself too, trying to describe.

See what I mean.

You can wander away. You can get lost.

Words can do that.


Dearly beloved, gathered here together

in this closed drawer,

fading now, I miss you.

I miss the missing, those who left earlier.

I miss even those who are still here.

I miss you all dearly.

Dearly do I sorry for you.


‘Sorrow’: that’s another word

you don’t hear much any more.

I sorrow dearly.


Here is the poet’s own beautiful read of her poem.

And here is Atwood’s absorbing description of how the poem came into being, and the times in which it was written.

I love this bit: “Poems are embedded in their time and place. They can’t renounce their roots. But, with luck, they may also transcend them. All that means, however, is that readers who come along later may appreciate them, though doubtless not in the exact way that was first intended. Hymns to the Great and Terrible Mesopotamian Goddess Inanna are fascinating – to me at least – but they don’t cause the marrow to melt in my bones as they might have done for an ancient listener: I don’t think Inanna may appear at any moment and level a few mountains, though I could always be wrong about that.”

A final few words from me. I found it interesting to compare the 25-year old Atwood as reflected in The Circle Game and the Atwood in her late 70s who produced Dearly. The poems couldn’t be more different.

(My copy of The Circle Game, showing a bit of wear and tear)

The Circle Game is challenging, the poems clever, ironic, elusive, dazzling in their density, rewarding in their richness. Not so with Dearly. Over the years, her poetry has simplified itself in a very profound way. There is more of Atwood, more down-to-earth sentiment, even outright belly-laughs. And many are deeply moving.



Orme Payne (right) and his boyhood chum Gordon Bannerman (left) enjoy the Italian sunshine, on their first break, after 73 straight days on the line. They were pals for life.

My friend Orme went through a lot in his final years. But when you’ve been through a Depression and a World War, you learn to take things as they come. During our many conversations, he never complained, never felt he was hard done by, even when he experienced the long months of isolation imposed by COVID-19. “I’m confined to barracks” was his matter-of-fact assessment. Over the phone, he was always cheerful. His yarns  and colourful expressions never dried up, aided by a memory that remained intact until the end. And damn, he was funny…

Orme died this past September, his body finally giving up the ghost, after 98 years and five months of a very good life. I miss him terribly.

On Remembrance Day, the first Orme has missed in 75 years, I’m sharing some of his stories and observations from notes I took during our chats, so you can get to know him, too.

Part Two includes a lookback to his boyhood and surviving the Depression in rural Saskatchewan, his time in Holland during the final months of the war and his last few years, when he continued to embrace what life had to offer. It’s become a cliché, but this truly was The Great Generation.

“Dad was a homesteader. We never had any animals. He wanted to be a grain farmer. He broke the first 500 acres with oxen and a team of horses. He got tired of the tail end of the horse, so he bought a Case tractor that made furrows with one-way discs….The CPR went right through the middle of the farm. We got all the railway ties….

“For four or five years in the Depression, we didn’t have two dimes to rub together. We lived in a homestead shack. In the winter, the inside walls had frost right through them…

We had room for either a heater or a Christmas tree. We decided we didn’t want to freeze to death, so we didn’t have a tree. The presents were pretty skimpy.  I got the Christmas list one year, cut it out and hung it on my wall for years….

“A couple of years, it didn’t rain at all. The tumbleweeds were big as Volkswagens. There were these great big monster winds.  They’d blow our fence apart and pile up dust and dirt against the walls. We called them dust devils. They were small cyclones. You could see ‘em coming. They were full of dust, but we’d run towards them, and they would knock us down on our ass…

“My uncle had a little bit of a crop in Fort Steele. He offered me a job for the summer. I also tried some placer mining. But the gold I got wouldn’t fill a thimble….I rode a freight train home. It was scary. I was with my friend Dempey Mitchell. We caught it one night in Cranbrook. A flatcar loaded with lumber. The freight stopped in a little place in the East Rockies. We had 15 cents and a few minutes, so we ran up to a store and bought a can of beans and a loaf of bread. It was a beautiful, sunny day. Dempey tore the end off the sliced bread to make a sandwich, and all the slices flew away like a deck of cards….

“I knew all the farms. It was a great place to tramp around. You could see a day on the prairies a week ahead of time….But we had these long sessions of winter. When I walked to school, it seemed uphill both ways….We played hockey on the creeks and open air rinks. The referees had little bells, not whistles. We had a radio so I could listen to the games from Toronto. The Leafs had The Kid Line. Busher Jackson, Charlie Conacher and Joe Primeau. The games were sponsored by Robin Hood Flour. I heard the very first All-Star Game. It was a benefit for Ace Bailey….the Depression was a pretty bad time. But everyone got along. No one tried to hose their neighbour….”

In early winter 1945, the unit belonging to Orme and his boyhood friend Gordie Bannerman was transferred from Italy to Holland. Right near the end of the war, there was a fierce, unexpected, nighttime encounter with a troop of Germans, who seemed to come upon the Canadians out of nowhere. That night, both Gordie and Orme thought the other had been killed. The next morning, Gordie crossed a field, heading towards Orme’s battlepost, which he’d seen go up I flames. He saw a figure coming towards him. It was Orme. “God, I’m glad to see you, Gordie,” said Orme. “I’d heard that you’d been killed.” And Gordie said: “Yeah, and I’m glad to see you too.” It was a night they never stopped talking about.

“We were sure as hell lucky to come out of that one. They walked right in on us. We were completely unprepared. We had no idea any Germans were in the area. But I had ordered my men to dig holes, anyway. Some didn’t want to do it. But it saved us….How they missed hitting so many of us in the night, I don’t know. One of our guys fought off bayonets with his fists. I emptied a Sten gun into them. But they got away….When the smoke cleared, the Germans were either dead or rounded up. The British tanks came in, and their troops took over….

“One time we met a bunch of refugees. There were wounded kids, old men and women. The Germans had just demolished their village. Scorched earth. We took a couple of prisoners. There was a young sub-lieutenant about my age. I got to feeling sorry for him, then I remembered what he’d done….

“Delfzijl was this nondescript little port town. But the Germans occupied it, and the British generals who lived in chateaus decided we had to take it. I don’t know why. Everyone knew the war was over. We thought we were home free. We lost 30 or 40 men. It was a bloody shame….”

(A couple of Cape Breton Highlanders pose with captured German souvenirs, after finally taking Delfzijl, just three days before the war ended.)

One of my last chats with Orme took place on May 5, the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Pictures of celebrating Canadian troops and jubilant Dutch citizens were everywhere. But it wasn’t like that for Orme.

“When we got word the war was over, we were still in the line. We took it with a grain of salt. We’d just lost some troops, so there wasn’t much of a celebration. Maybe a beer or two. I remember thinking: the one good thing is that we don’t have to dig a hole every night. And you could go to bed and know you weren’t going to be routed out….We were up in the north of the country, a place called Winschoten. The Dutch treated us royally. They were tougher than two-bit steaks….There was also a good major there. He threw a big banquet for us. The only thing I dodged was the fried eel. I dodged that like a bullet….There were also jury-rigged showers. It was like jogging through a car wash….

“We stayed in Holland for six months, but finally made it to London for Christmas. On the way over, we had a poker game on the deck. Everyone was throwing their Italian money into a big pot. High end/low end split. The guy who won picked up the money. Never even counted it. Then he got to England and found out none of it was any good….On my final leave, I had collected 40 or 50 wrist watches from prisoners. But I couldn’t sell a damn one. The market was flooded….The only thing I ever sold was a Luger replica, P38 pistol. I got 22 pounds for it….

“A monster liner took us across the Atlantic. It carried 6,000 men….We landed in New York, and got on the train. A buddy and I took some bread with us and got off in Swift Current. My dad and a neighbour, who had a better car, were there. It was mid-January. Jesus, I’d forgotten how cold it could be….We stepped off the train, into oblivion….”

About 10 years ago, Orme joined one of the annual “return to Holland” trips organized for vets. “The Dutch couldn’t do enough for you. All the old vets were on tanks. The parade must have been three miles long. Women would hand you their kid, say a one-year old. They wanted to be able to tell that child: ‘You touched a man who helped liberate Holland.”

Whenever I ventured he was a hero, Orme scoffed. “Well, it was real alright. You bet it was. There were a couple of times when I was damned sure I wasn’t coming back….But my job was away from the guns, in charge of the signals…You don’t have to be a hero to dig a hole…”

When we began chatting, Orme was still living at home in Port Moody. After a spell in the hospital, he transferred to an assisted-living residence. “I went down from 160 to 125 pounds,” Orme said. “I could stand in the middle of the room, and nobody would notice me.” Still, it didn’t totally slow him down. “I’m doing yoga for an hour, once a week,” he told me. “It’s great.”

He was determined to make it back one more time to his hometown of Neville, Saskatchewan. “Even if they have to strap me to the top of the car,” Orme declared. In May of 2017, he did. “He had a blast,” his daughter Deb reported. The next year, he did it again. Despite breaking both his hips, in September and April, he made it to Neville once more in the fall of 2018, to mark the dedication of the small village’s new cenotaph. “He didn’t want to fly,” said Deb, who shared driving duties with her sister Maureen. “He wanted to see the scenery.”

Orme Paye on the right, as Legion members gather at the cenotaph in Neville, Saskatchewan to honour Orme’s return to his boyhood village at the age of 96. Photo supplied by his daughter Deb.

One journey remained. After his legs gave out for good, he took up residence in the George Derby Care Centre, where many veterans end their years. Yet Orme always sounded hale and hearty. There was no quit in him. Even when the COVID-19 lockdowns cut him off from family visits, he didn’t complain. Self-pity wasn’t in his vocabulary. Not that it was easy.

“They had the ‘flu in here (before the panemic). It went through here like salt through a hired girl. It turned me inside out…But there are a few parts of me that are still not falling off. I turned 97 in April.  No wonder I have a few twinges. Sometimes I feel like an old crow on a post….”

 “In the dining room, there’s two to a table. But some of the people you eat with don’t know if they’re on foot or horseback. It’s tough, but I think I’ve still got one foot in the stirrups…

Then COVID-19 hit. “We can’t go anywhere. I’m confined to barracks….My daughters sit on camp chairs outside in a little park. I’m on the inside, on the phone. That’s the way we have to talk….But you don’t run into any tanks in here….”

He turned 98 in April. “They brought in a birthday parcel for me. I opened it, and my daughters looked on through the back window. We were apart….I got some nice cards, too. That’s a good reason to live a little longer….I feel good, but when you get over the hump, you start going downhill….”

The end came on Sept. 6.  “The nurse and social workers all came to say good-bye,” said Deb.

Two years earlier, after the death of Gordie Bannerman, his pal of 85 years, Orme had reflected on the toll taken by the passage of time. “The veterans have been dropping like flies. Our ranks are thinning. I’m the last one I know of from all of us who signed up at Aneroid. The last one standing to deliver the news…”

And now Orme is gone, too. Rest in Peace, my friend.

Remembrance Day at George Derby, 2019.


Orme Payne on Remembrance Day, 2019, at George Derby.

I lost a good friend of mine this fall. Orme Payne, who fought in Italy and Holland during World War Two, passed away at the George Derby Care Home in Burnaby. He was 98 years and five months young, and I use the word “young” advisedly. Through the years, no matter how rough a time the rest of him was having, the strength of his voice never wavered, his mind and memory remained razor sharp, and he never failed to make me laugh. So, Remembrance Day in this most terrible of years will be even more sombre for me than usual. I will be thinking of Orme. 

I first met him in 2015, when I wrote a Remembrance Day story for the Globe and Mail on the long, remarkable friendship between Orme and his boyhood prairie buddy, Gordie Bannerman. The two first bonded on a dusty ball diamond in southern rural Saskatchewan at the age of 12. Gordie pitched. Orme caught. “I was the only one with a glove,” said Orme. “But no mask. Took a couple on the nose. Lost a lot of blood.”

They went through school together, joined the army on July 23, 1940 (their enlistment numbers are one digit apart), fought in the same regiment right through the war, came back safe and sound, and remained in close contact with each other for the next 73 years. How close were they? Shortly after Gordie fell and broke his left leg, Orme fell and broke his right. “When it happened to Gordie, I thought to myself: ‘that clumsy old coot.’ Six months later it happened to me,” Orme said. “We figured things out. If we put our two legs together, we’d be perfect for a three-legged race.”

Their friendship only ended, 85 years after it began, when Gordie died in 2018. “The last thing I heard out of him was a joke about Bill Mather losing his gum in the chicken house, back in Neville,” Orme told me. “It’s hard to believe he’s gone.”

You can read my Globe story on the two old vets here:

Gordon Bannerman (left) and Orme Payne (right), getting together in 2015. John Lehmann Photo.

After the story appeared, Orme and I warmed to each other with regular chats over the phone. Talking with him was always a delight. He was not like some veterans who, as they aged, had trouble remembering details beyond their oft-told war stories. His memory was a treasure. You could ask him about anything, no matter how far back, and he would produce names, dates and details, as if he’d been telling the story for years. As a bonus, there were always jokes or expressions that cracked me up. I started taking notes.

I reviewed them after Orme died, and I could still hear his voice and the down-to-earth way he talked loud and clear. It was pure prairie, sprinkled at times with pure poetry. He could pop expressions better than Charlie Farquharson. 

For instance: “I haven’t been to a restaurant since Caesar was a cadet.” Or: “My daughter Deb goes back and forth like a fiddler’s elbow.” Or: “Those guys had more guts than a government mule.” Or: “He was tougher than a two-bit steak in Saskatoon.” Or: “That election (2016) was as a crooked as a dog’s hind leg.” Or: “The night was blacker than the insides of a cow.” Or: “I was scrawny as hell. You could hold me up and see the scenery right through me.” Or: “This friend of mine managed a company called Neidersauser. Its name sounded like a sneeze.” You get the picture. My notes made me miss him even more. It was as if our conversations were still going on.

I’d like to share some of them with you. As Orme said of Gordie, it’s hard to believe he’s gone.

First, a bit of bio.  He was born in the southern Saskatchewan village of Neville. A farm boy in a family of seven, he weathered the Depression, and joined the army at 18, as a member of the 60th Field Battery. (“I was lucky to get a meal in those days. The war was an escape.”) He became a Sergeant in the Signals Corp, responsible for laying vital communication lines between lookout and command posts and headquarters. After the war, he left Saskatchewan behind, settled down in Port Moody, worked, married and helped raise his three kids. He was a stalwart of the Legion, briefly on city council, a champion snooker player, and a golfer. At the age of 86, he accomplished the rare feat of shooting his age. Twice! “I learned to play in my granddad’s pasture. I had an old one-iron with a hickory shaft that I got from my dad,” Orme told me. “I used it for everything, from driver right down to putter.  I ended up giving it to the local museum.”

Orme played hockey, too. In fact, he was on the army team that took on his boyhood heroes, the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were barnstorming in Holland. They didn’t all make the trip, but their legendary netminder Turk Broda was in goal. “I hadn’t been on skates in five years, and the ones I got didn’t fit me,” said Orme, “but there I was, coming down the left wing. I got a shot on goal, and he stopped it. Someone told me later: ‘That’s your claim to fame. A shot on Turk Broda.’”

There’s a lot more about Orme’s boyhood and surviving the Depression (“the tumbleweeds were big as Volkswagens”), including a harrowing trip riding the rails from Fort Steele back to Neville. But this is Remembrance Day, and Orme was a vet. Naturally, our conversations often turned to the war. We didn’t talk much about the battles. We talked about what it was like. So, let’s start there.

“There were good days and terrible days…We landed in Naples. People were poor as church mice, rats everywhere. They say ‘see Naples and die.’ I don’t know which was better to come first….All our trucks and equipment were second-hand throwaways from the British 8th Army, but we had a bunch of prairie kids who could make anything run….The first day I saw action, it was scary as hell. You could hear the shells exploding long before we got there….I always made sure to tell everyone to dig a hole (slit trench) whenever we got to a place, but we were sometimes 10 miles from the front line and not everyone could be bothered. One night, a barrage came in on us and one shell blew off somebody’s leg 300 yards right through the air and onto a tank. I’ve never seen anyone dig so fast, after that…You could get killed going to your own cookshack….

“There were a lot of (Indigenous) guys with us. They were tough as boiled owls. They could sneak around where a white man couldn’t. We would often drink with them. But after all they did in the war, they weren’t allowed in the beer parlours back home…It wasn’t right…

“We had a few real bad scenes. Sometimes you felt you couldn’t hang on. We had one kid. He shouldn’t have been in the army at all. A damn good man with a notebook and phone, but not with a gun. We were at the foot of a ridge. A barrage came in, and he disappeared in a bunch of black smoke. Imagine that. And it didn’t even touch me. Geez, I was so lucky, so goddamned lucky. Really, all it was was a roll of the dice….

Orme Payne receiving a momento (foreground) of the Italian campaign in 2017 from MP Fin Donnelly. He was one of only three survivors in BC to be so honoured.

“I was a signals sergeant. I had three stripes, two bits an hour and a gun. We were often out there at night, in a strange land….We had a good crew, 24 of them. But they were shelling us so badly, they kept hitting the lines. After that, we decided to lay two lines, and I used to get hell for using so much line….There were three or four guys in my unit who could do most anything. Completely reliable. They were under fire all the time, but they didn’t get a mark on them. Then, they came home and shot themselves….I know this war had to be fought, but it was a terrible thing to have been through…Thinking back, they had to take a bunch of kids off the farm and turn them into a bunch of kids who could kill someone…

“On my 22nd birthday, I got 48-hour leave, with my good friend Jack Beckwith. We were on the Adriatic, so we decided to go swimming. We jumped in. Holy Mackerel! It was so cold, I had icicles on me for a week. But it sure refreshed you in a hurry. Jack survived the war and our cold swim. But long after the war, he drowned. A real good guy, he was a postmaster….

“One Christmas, we were in the line. We took turns for dinner. It was pretty meagre. But we all got a bottle of beer. The officers got a bottle of whiskey….The Brits provided our food. It was all dehydrated, the cheapest of everything. American rations were so much better….We went across one river after another. We had D-8 ‘cats. Shells would come in, a guy would get shot off, and the next guy would step right in. They had more guts than a government mule….

“The last position we had was at Mazzano, near Venice. It really rained. Our sleeping bags were wet. But we had wool uniforms. They kept you warm. The Americans all had cotton. They damn near froze to death. Some of their teeth are probably still chattering…”

The hard, bloody fighting in Italy got none of the attention or glamour of D-Day. Those who took part enthusiastically embraced the sardonic song, “D-Day Dodgers”. “I know every verse,” said Orme.

Lifelong friends. Gordie and Orme relaxing in the warm Italian sun, finally getting a break after 73 straight days on the line taking on crack German troops. I love this photo.

After the Allied victory, Orme and Gordie’s unit was transferred to Holland, where the Germans were dug in against advancing Canadian troops. Casualties were heavy.

To be continued, with Orme’s accounts of the war in Holland, growing up during the Depression and life at George Derby, under restrictions imposed by COVID-19….