COURAGEOUS CANADIANS

This year, I thought, my lifelong love of the Olympics, was, if not at an end, under serious challenge. Pyeongchang? The site of the Games conjured up no vision at all. Nor, with newspapers and other media so reduced, was there any real build-up to these Winter Olympics to whet the appetite. Once Gary Kingston, the Vancouver Sun’s consummate chronicler of BC’s winter athletes, departed, coverage dropped to virtually zero. As for the Globe and Mail, my former paper has regularly sent a healthy contingent to the Olympics, including, on occasion, me. This year, the Globe opted for a small force of three, The late, dispiriting, get-out-of-jail-free card delivered to Russia’s organized dopers didn’t help. Given that, the lack of buzz and an awkward time difference of 17 hours, I was wondering how much of the Games I would watch at all.

I should have known better. Wednesday afternoon, more than a day before the lavish Opening Ceremonies even took place, where was I? Watching mixed Olympics curling. Although Canada eventually lost this strange, albeit fun hybrid of the roaring game to Norway, I was already back inside the tent, hooked once more.

As always, bold predictions for our Canadian athletes are trotted out before the Games begin. Inevitably, there are disappointments. Nothing in sports is quite like the pressure of the Olympics. With the proverbial whole world watching and the added burden of carrying the hopes of your country, which resolutely ignores you the rest of the time, a competitor get one chance every four years to come through. There is no wait ‘til next year. No wonder pressure claims so many victims, while relative unknowns, with nothing to lose, often emerge as surprise gold medalists. That’s why the drama of the Olympics is unsurpassed, and that’s why Canada’s first five medals at these Games – four silvers and a bronze — were so inspiring. Mark McMorris, Max Parrot, Ted-Jan Bloemen, Justine Dufour-Lapointe and Laurie Blouin: with everything on the line, all won their medals with truly courageous performances.

In men’s slopestyle, the fact Mark McMorris was even at Pyeongchang was one of the major stories heading into the Games. At Sochi in 2014, the legendary king of “big air” from flatland Saskatchewan had gutted out a miraculous bronze medal, despite fracturing a rib just two weeks earlier. In 2016, he was sidelined with a broken right femur. And then, a mere 11 months ago, snowboarding with some pals in Whistler’s backcountry, he slammed into a tree and nearly died. His injuries read like a doctor’s meat chart: broken jaw, broken arm, ruptured spleen, fractured pelvis, more rib fractures and a collapsed lung. The picture of McMorris in hospital, with bandages and a zillion hook-ups all over his battered body has gone viral.

Once out of hospital, McMorris undertook a rehab program so arduous as to be absurd. Defying predictions he might never snowboard competitively again, he was back at in late November. But how would he do at the Olympics, where pressure and competition are at their most intense? If there was any fragility left from his astounding crackup, now is when it would show. No worries. Mark McMorris came through with high-flying colours . His soaring stunts brought him so close to a storybook gold, he was almost disappointed at winning bronze, against odds no one but McMorris thought beatable that dark, terrifying day in Whistler. Two Olympics, two miracle podium finishes for Canada’s Bionic Man. Courage.

Slopestyle team-mate Max Parrot, whom many ranked ahead of McMorris, succumbed to the swirling winds, falling heavily on his first run, and then again on his second run. As he awaited a third and final attempt, Red Gerard, the 17-year old American kid, was on top, McMorris second. Parrot was nowhere. The last snowboarder in the competition, this was it. There was no margin for error. The next Olympics were four years distant. He looked out over the snow-swept terrain, the series of tricky rails and tall, launchpad jumps and the crowd far below. “I had a lot of pressure and my heart was beating really fast before starting on the course,” he recounted, later. It was all or nothing. And the 23-year old Quebecker nailed it. The second highest score among all contenders and a silver medal. As for those two falls: “I hit my head twice, pretty hard actually. My helmet made it possible for me to survive. I’m really happy.” Courage.

There is something so calm and mesmerizing about the 5,000 metres speedskating event. Competitors circle the gleaming oval track in perfect, rhythmic harmony, usually with one hand or two tucked comfortably behind their back, while their long, powerful strides propel them forward, lap after lap. It seems so effortless. As the race wears on, however, distance takes a toll. In order to have maximum energy at the end, when it counts, you need to set a perfect pace. Otherwise, you falter. You tighten up, fighting for every breath.

It happened to Ted-Jan Bloemen. The Dutchman-turned-Canadian was a pre-race favourite, but these were the Olympics, his first. After building a quick early lead over his Norwegian track partner, he began to struggle. With just a few laps to go, Bloemen had fallen behind. He seemed done. Yet somehow, from somewhere, he summoned an inner reserve of strength and began fighting back. When the two skaters crossed the finish line, his skate blade flashed across the line a miniscule, two one-thousandths of a second ahead. It brought him the silver medal, the first by a Canadian at that distance since the 1930’s. The Norwegian, Sverre Lunde Pedersen, was stunned. “I thought he was tired, too tired to skate fast at the end, but he came back,” he told reporters, afterwards. “That was impressive.” Blomen’s time was his fastest ever at that altitude.. “I got everything out of myself that I had.” Courage.

Four years ago, “les soeurs extraordinares”, as I called them, captivated the country at the Sochi Winter Olympics. Justine Dufour-Lapointe hurtled down the treacherous mogul course to a gold medal. Beside her on the podium, with a silver medal around her neck, was none other than her sister Chloe. Justine was 19, Chloe 22. It was perhaps the story of the Games, and I blogged excitedly about it here. https://mickleblog.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/gold-silver-and-sisters/

But four years is a long time to remain at the top. In 2017, the sisters’ beloved, supportive mother was diagnosed with cancer (now in remission). Nagged by worry, Justine’s results fell off. And Canada had a new moguls champion, Andi Naude from Penticton. Coming into these Olympics, few foresaw another podium finish for the emotional French-Canadian. But once again, at the critical moment…. Well, let Justine explain: “When I was up there I was just thinking, this is it. This is my last run. My moment. And I want to control it. Despite all the world watching me right now, it’s me who will decide what happens next.” Under the pounding pressure, when it counted most, she put everything together with a beautiful, aggressive run, snatching second place and a silver medal. This medal, she said, as tears mixed with snow streamed down her face, meant more to her than gold at Sochi. “This has been the hardest year of my life, a hurricane in our family,” Justine said, noting as well the competitive setbacks endured by her other sisters. “This is more than a medal. It is a victory for our family, and that’s what we are celebrating.” Courage.

For many Canadians, their first glimpse of this year’s Winter Olympics was a long-range shot of a large red sled transporting Canadian snowboarder Laurie Blouin off the course, after she crashed hard during training on the Games’ first day. Taken to hospital, she was soon released, but Canadian officials were mum about her injuries. It was left to Mark McMorris to reveal: “She whacked her noggin pretty good and cut up her face.” Yet Blouin somehow made it to Monday’s final, which was clouded by controversy. Fierce, gusting winds buffeted the snowboarders as they soared high into the sky, causing fall after fall, including Blouin on her first high-flying venture. But the event continued. Having already fallen once, with memories of her crash still fresh, would Blouin’s psyche be strong enough to brave more danger from the ferocious gales, described as “terrifying” by another Canadian slopestyler? You bet. A backside 720, a frontside 540, a solid landing from a cab underflip, and Laurie Blouin had a silver medal, just three days after her release from hospital. “I’m really stubborn,” the young Quebecker, displaying a sinister welt and prominent cut under her left eye, asserted to English-language reporters. “Is that how you say it?” Yes it is. Courage.

 

 

 

 

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DODGING DANGER IN PARADISE

It’s a while since I’ve been caught up in a world-wide news event, especially one where I MIGHT HAVE DIED. But there we were, after a five a.m. wake-up call by Kauai’s ubiquitous red roosters, on the first day of our holiday, groggily sipping our coffee in the Saturday morning sunshine. All of a sudden, the island quiet was pierced by an urgent loud buzz on our cellphone. It sounded like an Amber Alert on steroids. “What the heck was that?” I said out loud to other breakfasters gathered on the patio of our inn. No one looked up from their buttered toast. Thinking it was just some sort of glitch, we didn’t investigate further. Then, my companion reported back from the office. The woman behind the front desk had said something about a missile threat, as she busied herself with the office routine. The patio remained an oasis of calm. I glanced at the sky, saw nothing and continued with my coffee. Nobody, it seemed, including ourselves, was going to be bothered about a little thing like nuclear annihilation. After all, we were on holiday.

When I subsequently checked the Globe and Mail website, I discovered that the alert had actually been pretty scary, the nonchalance by our front desk clerk notwithstanding. ‘SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Yikes. And the Hawaiian missile alarm was at the top of the Globe’s story list. We’d been part of history, bad coffee and all.

A little later, when we traipsed in to nearby, sleepy Lihue, I asked some of the locals how they’d dealt with the alert. Unlike reports of panic elsewhere, people seemed to have taken it in their laid-back stride.

Our cab driver said she’d been stuck in an unrelated traffic jam. She did what anyone would do facing an incoming ballistic missile. She phoned her supervisor. Her boss told her not to worry. The boss’s husband was in the military, and he’d confirmed it was a false alarm. The volunteer at the local museum said he’d slept through the whole thing. “If it was real, that’s the best way to go.” I agreed.

A genial, bearded Uber driver was the only person I talked to who actually reacted to the alert. He’d been at his Saturday men’s Bible class (I refrained from asking whether he thought the Apocalypse was coming at last…). All their phones went off at once, and everyone rushed outside. He immediately phoned his wife with specific instructions: “Stay inside. Don’t go to that garage sale!”

As we talked, he noted that some of those who hadn’t taken it seriously questioned why anyone would launch a ballistic missile towards Kauai. He pointed out, quite rightly, that the US Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility is on the island, right by the wonderfully-named Barking Sands. The PMRF’s latest mission is to track incoming missiles and shoot them down. “So we could have been a target,” he said, cheerfully.

Another fellow I spoke to further up island was rational about it. His community tests its emergency sirens once a month, to ensure their readiness in case of an incoming tsunami or other calamity. He got the alert, poked his head out the door, heard no sirens and went back inside, figuring he was going to see the sun set on another day in paradise, without a mushroom cloud obscuring the view. Plus, as many observed: “Seek shelter? Like, where, dude?” This is Hawaii. According to a local newspaper round-up, one guy took refuge with his son behind a palm tree…

I particularly liked a few other reactions. Who should be a longtime permanent resident of Kauai, but Samantha Geimer, the victim in the Roman Polanski child sex abuse case? On Facebook, noting the blasé indifference around her, she posted: “I guess panicking in Hawaii is making coffee and shrugging our shoulders.” A youngster phoned his mom to tell her a ballistic missile was coming their way. “OK, I’m at the farmers’ market,” she replied. And finally, a tourist from Utah sent a text to her kids, saying: “This could be it. I love you.” They texted back: “Send us a picture.”

And that was that. There were reports of understandable panic elsewhere, but overall, on beautiful Kauai, the response to possible nuclear annihilation seemed to be: keep calm and carry on. It’s probably not real, and if it is real, what can you do?

On reflection, I am little less sanguine about the bizarre incident. First of all, the frightening alert was apparently put out by an employee “during a shift change”. Hey, we’ve all experienced shift changes. Issuing a ballistic missile alert is just one of those things that can happen, right?….But I mean, really??? And then it took an unforgiveable 38 minutes to issue a cell phone correction. (Many got the news much earlier from Congresswoman Tulsi Garbbard, who posted her own “all-clear” message a mere 12 minutes after the alert.) Those twin incompetencies are truly beyond belief, particularly given the two nutbars allegedly in charge of North Korea and the USA, who make anything seem possible. (In the winning way that is coming to characterize society these days, the unfortunate who put out the alert has received “dozens of death threats by fax, phone and social media,” officials said.)

Meanwhile, for us veterans of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, this brought back a lot of unwanted memories, from a time when “Duck and Cover” exercises were very real. During crunch day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we went to school, not knowing if we would be coming back home. It was truly an eerie and frightening feeling. But of course, we still did exactly what many Islanders did on Saturday. We went about our normal routine. If the bomb was coming, so be it.

So for now, ballistic missile dodged. Slap on the sunscreen.

 

A TOAST TO FINLAND!


(Mårten Beijar photo)

You may have missed it, but the land of my ancestors recently celebrated it’s centennial. On Dec. 6, 1917,   small but mighty Finland officially severed itself from Russia, becoming an independent country for the first time. Russia’s new Bolshevik rulers did not protest. I remember leafing through one of my great aunt’s photo albums and seeing a grainy picture of the raising of the Finnish flag in their small community for the first time. A bit more than two and a half years after independence, my mother was born in the fishing/farming village of Sideby. When I first visited “the relatives” in the winter of 1971, I was given the very room where her birth took place. Under the mountain of blankets my two great aunts supplied, I remember going to sleep that night looking at the same walls that oversaw my mother’s first breath of life and pondering the chains of existence. Because my great-grandfather August Jossfok, a rough-looking, bearded fellow in big boots, and a young woman down the road, Ida Mathilda Karlsdottor, found favour with each other 130 years ago, I am here today. (My grandmother’s family was from the small farming community of Karperö, further north.)

My mother’s family are Swede-Finns, part of the predominantly Swedish-speaking communities that line the Gulf of Bothnia, left over from the several hundred years when Finland was part of imperial Sweden. In the old days, Swede-Finns spoke only Swedish. When the family left for Canada in 1928, my mother didn’t know a word of Finnish. Few outside Finland realize that the country remains officially bilingual, although mixed-marriages and migration to Sweden have reduced those for whom Swedish is their first language to barely 6 percent of the population.

In fact, there is probably much else people don’t know about Finland, besides saunas, Sibelius (a Swede-Finn, incidentally), the prowess of its hockey players and its remarkable education system, which consistently produces student results among the best in the world. Herewith, in honour of Finland’s 100th birthday, are a dozen things you might like to know about a country that has punched above its weight for a long time, and continues to marches to its own drummer. (Even before independence, Finland had been the first jurisdiction in Europe to give women the right to vote, in 1906–10 years before good old Canada.) First, some history.

 

  1. The fierce polarized politics of early Finland were frightful. Immediately after independence, conservative Whites and socialist Reds duked it out for ascendancy, resulting in a short, brutal civil war that claimed 36,000 lives in a country of just three million people. With the critical assistance of several thousand German troops, the Whites were victorious.

 

  1. The bitterness of the civil war had a tangible impact on far-away Canada. Thousands of “Red Finns” left their divided homeland, now in the hands of the vengeful Whites, and emigrated to Canada. Many found work in the logging camps and mines of northern Ontario. The new arrivals did not leave their politics behind. A number became political activists and radical union organizers. In 1929, Janne Voutilainen and Viljo Rosvall “drowned”, while trying to organize some nearby loggers. Most believe they were murdered by anti-union thugs. Their funeral was the largest ever held in Thunder Bay, which retains a Finnish flavor even today, most notably with the venerable, 100-year old Hoito restaurant, still on the bottom floor of the Finnish Labour Temple. My grandfather was also among the “Red Finn” contingent, but thankfully, he brought his family to Vancouver.

 

  1. In World War II, Finland was an ally of Germany. Hitler made a brief visit in 1942 to wish the country’s military leader, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, a happy 75th birthday. The previous year Finnish forces had attacked the Soviet Union to regain territory lost to the USSR during the Winter War. After some initial success, the venture ended disastrously. After the war, the Soviets exacted heavy reparations, claimed a chunk of border territory, and took jurisdiction over a strategic peninsula not that far from Helsingfors (as Swede-Finns call the capital) until 1956. Finland was also required to remain “neutral” in world affairs, a position they scrupulously maintained until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

 

  1. During the post-war years, Finland established one of the most extensive state social services systems in the world, believing, along with other Nordic countries, that governments have a duty to intervene on behalf of their citizens. Shredding the neo-con argument that taxes and government get in the way of economic development, Finland’s per-capita income has more than held its own among other Western industrialized countries. In 2016, the World Economic Forum ranked tiny Finland first in terms of World Human Capital. Other international reports found Finland the most stable country in the world from 2011-2016, and second best in terms of the gender gap. As baseball broadcaster Mel Allen used to say: “How about that?!”

 

  1. Finland has military conscription. All my male cousins, on turning 18, had to interrupt their education to serve at least six months with the Finnish army.

 

  1. Coalition governments are the order of the day. For many years (until 2015), the small Swedish People’s Party (Svenksa Folkpartiet), supported by just about all of my relatives, was part of the government.

 

  1. In 2014, Finland became the first, and so far, only country to put homoerotic drawings by a gay artist on its stamps. They were the work of the artist known as Tom of Finland (Touko Lasksonen), subject of a recent bio-pic this year by director Dome Karukoski. (The one below is the mild one.)

 

  1. Of course, Finland isn’t perfect. Alcoholism remains a big problem, no doubt contributing to the country’s relatively high homicide rate, while youth unemployment is stuck at around 20 per cent. And, as in most European countries, anti-immigration sentiment has become an issue, fueling the growth of a worrisome, nationalist party. The good news, however, is that political leaders banded together in June to freeze out the Finns Party, after it elected a hard-line, anti-immigration leader. Twenty elected members of the party left to help the coalition government maintain its majority. “This decision will likely ruin our political careers, but we are determined to do this,” they said in a statement. “Today, we are not politicians, but we are doing this for the fatherland’s sake.” How rare is that in today’s political world?

 

  1. In the final of the world hockey championship in 2011, playing against their loathed, arch-rivals, Finland whacked neighbouring Sweden 6-1. It was the greatest triumph in the history of Finnish hockey.

 

  1. Believe it or not, the national sport of Finland is not hockey, but baseball. However, banish any thought of the North American version of rounders.  The Finns call it Pesäpallo, and the rules seem to come from outer space. Would anyone else other than the fun-loving Finns have three designated players on each team called “Jokers”? You think cricket is complicated? It takes this guy more than five minutes to explain all the ins and outs of Pesäpallo. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yom1_q8WRck Unlike any sport you’ve ever seen.

 

  1. Well, maybe not. There’s also the Finns’ fondness for fen football, otherwise known as swamp soccer. The august New York Times had a hard time taking it seriously, headlining their story on the  competitive bog slog: “Finland has a sports screw loose.” This from a country that relishes bowling. But never mind. Read about it here. Try hard not to laugh. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/27/sports/finland-has-a-sports-screw-loose.html

12. Last, but certainly not least: according to the Guinness World Records, the 19-letter Finnish word saippuakivikauppias (a soapstone vendor), is the world’s longest palindromic word in everyday use. That prompted my friend Lorne Slotnick to ponder: “Why would the word for a soapstone vendor be in “everyday use”?” And the answer is: Because it’s Finland!

Happy 100th birthday, land of my mother’s birth, and a Merry Christmas/God Jul/Hyvää Joulua to you all.

 

LOOKING BACK ON BASEBALL, AS THE COLD WINDS BLOW

And so baseball winter has begun, made even harsher by the tragic death of Roy Halladay. The hopeful breezes of spring, the lazy hazy crazy days of summer and the beautifully slanted light of fall have all departed from the diamond, leaving us to bundle up and shiver through the bleak wintry months of no baseball. In that sweet, far-off time when I was a kid, the Series was always over by the second week of October, in time for the players to do their fall hunting. Now, with so many wildcard and playoff games piled on, the Series stretches into November, as ridiculous a month as ever was for the summer game. In November, you don’t think baseball, you think winter.

There was hardly a “wow” ending. The highly-anticipated seventh game of the recent Series was drearier than opening a tin of sardines. To paraphrase noted St. Louis Cardinal fan T.S. “Tommy” Eliot, “This is the way the year ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.” After two dreadful stanzas by Yu “Non-Whirling” Darvish, the Astros were up 5-0. Yet we had to endure seven more innings of tedium in front of an increasingly morose  crowd, before the Dodgers officially surrendered, 5-1, and the Houston Astros, of all teams, were World Series champions. It was a forlorn anti-climax to a Series that had been such a wonderful reminder of the kind of drama and individual heroics only baseball can deliver. There were spells of off-the-wall craziness never before witnessed on a World Series diamond. So many records were shattered, it felt like Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in 1979. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1CP1751wJA)

The Series even started with a record. The thermometer for Game One at Chavez Ravine hit 103 degrees on the fuddy-duddy Fahrenheit scale, nine degrees higher than the previous heat standard (baseball has statistics on everything). Then Dodger leadoff hitter Chris Taylor homered on the very first pitch his team faced. Had that ever happened? Nope. Mind you, there have only been 113 previous World Series.

Game Two was so full of extraordinary happenings it could have been the Trump White House. But in a good way. All told there were eight home runs, including a seemingly impossible five in extra innings. Both were Series firsts, with the added fillip of the Dodgers, down to their last strike in the bottom of the 10th, tying the game on a rare single, struck by a guy who hit .a measly 215 during the year.

The next two games were close, well-played contests, setting the stage for what many have called a World Series game for the ages. When home runs stopped rocketing into the bleachers, when three-run leads on both sides stopped being erased with a swing of the bat, and the last beleaguered pitcher staggered off the mound, the score was 13-12. Someone did one of those momentum charts. It went up and down like a pogo stick. The game lasted five hours and 17 minutes. Something inside me wanted it to go on forever. And after all that slugging, the game ended in the 10th inning with the puniest of baseball rallies: a two-out hit batter, a walk and a single. These few lines simply can’t do justice to the abundance of thrills that took place. But for those who want to read a fulsome write-up of the game, here’s a wild account by my favourite baseball writer these days, Jonah Keri. https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/astros-dodgers-world-series-game-5-the-moments-that-made-us-lose-our-damn-mind/ Even the New Yorker’s Roger Angell, the best chronicler baseball has ever had, roused himself at the age of 97 to write about it. https://www.newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/astros-dodgers-world-series-home-runs

When the last of the Dodgers fell, befitting the team’s first World Series in its 55-year history, the young Astros naturally went wild.  Shortstop Carlos Correa was so pumped, he proposed to his girlfriend right there on the field. Live, on TV. Another Series first!

For Vancouver baseball fans, however, this was old hat. We had our championship moment in the sun weeks ago. For the fourth time in seven years, the hometown Canadians hoisted the highly-esteemed Bob Freitas Trophy, emblematic of baseball supremacy in the Single A Northwest League. We made the Everett Aquasox suck, forced the Tri-City Dust Devils to eat dust, sent the Hillsboro Hops hopping, doused the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, polished off the Eugene Emeralds, made too much noise for Boise, and forced the Spokane Indians to change their name to the Indigenous People. It may not have been the World Series, but the exuberance and abandon of the young Canadians bouncing up and down on the field and frolicking around their championship trophy matched anything we saw in Los Angeles, albeit minus an engagement ring.

Minor league baseball is so much fun. Yes, Bull Durham had lots of other stuff going for it, but the charm of baseball’s best movie came mostly from its spot-on depiction of baseball in the minors, including the community’s loyal fan base (in the case of Annie Savoy, a bit more than “loyal”…). The movie gets it right. The way Vancouver has fallen in love with venerable Nat Bailey Stadium and its Single A Canadians, even lower on the Blue Jays’ farm team ladder than the Lansing Lugnuts, reminds one that money, hype and saturation, endlessly-analytical coverage aren’t everything in sports. Sometimes there’s just the joy of the game, itself.

I can’t remember having a bad time at Nat Bailey. It’s a place for families and kids, lifelong baseball fans, couples on a date, “bros” who just want to suck back a brew or two in the sun and, well, just about everyone. The entire park is a no-lout zone. This past summer was particularly splendid. Not only did the Canadians qualify for the playoffs before sell-out crowds, they won it all. I took in two of the games, including the one that brought the C’s their league championship in glorious September.

Both were tight, 2-1 victories, but the mood in the stands was anything but tense. During Game One, half a dozen women sitting behind me were having a grand time, chatting away and watching the game, too. (“Can you imagine trying to hit 94 mph?….Their pitcher looks 12….”) When a dude photo-bombed their selfie, they killed themselves laughing. As for my lonely guy self, I was able to muse once again on that baseball imponderable: why are there coaching boxes if the coaches are never in them? I also noticed with delight that a coach for the visitors was a fellow named Turtle Thomas.

The game went into the eighth inning, still scoreless, when the C’s Logan Warmoth, who had only one homer all year and whose older brother is a morning TV news anchor in Florida, unexpectedly lined the ball into the left-field stands for a two-run dinger, and we all went crazy. After a nerve-wracking ninth, the players ran onto the field, celebrating as if this really was the World Series.

The good times continued on the night Vancouver claimed the trophy. Three infectiously happy young Latina women in the next row kept up a steady din of cheering in Spanish, standing up to dance every time there was a hint of music. They really lit up whenever the C’s young Venezuelan third baseman Dieferson Barreto came to bat. “Number 5. He’s the best,” one told me. Sister, friend, partner? Who cares?

You knew it was going to be a special evening when perennial also-ran Wasabi won the Sushi Mascot Race. Once again, Logan Warmoth was the hero. The Canadians had only two hits all night, but Warmoth’s two-run single was one of them, and the home team held on to win. As the final batter went down on strikes, the players hurled their gloves into the air and rushed into each other’s arm. It was a joyous sight. No matter this was Single A, no matter the trophy was named after someone they had never heard of and no matter they were playing for a city in a foreign country with a Queen, the metric system and weird coins called loonies, they could not have been happier. Nor could we in the stands. No one wanted to leave.

 

(Photo by Megan Stewart)

 

 

 

 

MOTHER JONES COMES TO BC

(Mother Jones rallying Colorado miners)

Notwithstanding the dread my teacher mother felt every Labour Day, today is a day to celebrate the contribution of working people and their unions, not only to the building of BC, but to the many social benefits they fought for over the years, which we now tend to take for granted. You know, boring stuff like the eight-hour day, the five-day work week, paid holidays, workers’ compensation, safety standards, pensions, sick pay, the simple right to join a union and so many others. Sadly, some of these gains are being eroded in this scary new gig and everything-goes economy that seems to be driving workers down, rather than up. But that’s a topic for another day. Instead, to mark this country’s 123rd Labour Day, I offer a little-known tale from BC labour lore. At a time when the heroic fight of Vancouver Island coal miners against the robber baron mine owners was seriously flagging, done in by strikebreakers, militia soldiers and the courts, they received a legendary visitor.

Mention Mother Jones today, and thoughts immediately turn to the prominent muck-raking journal of the same name. But 100 years ago, the world knew a different Mother Jones. Mary Harris Jones was arguably the most famous woman in America. She was also regularly denounced by authorities as the most dangerous woman in America. A diminutive firebrand well into her senior years, Jones preached a fierce, anti-capitalism gospel of resistance and socialism wherever she travelled, and that was mostly wherever miners were on strike. Undeterred by jailings and frequent arrests, she took on mine owners, Pinkerton thugs, strikebreakers and governors alike, with her no holds barred support for miners and their families. She once wrote of miners in those grim days of low wages and terrible working conditions: “For a second more sunlight, men must fight like tigers. For the privilege of seeing the colour of their children’s eyes by the light of the sun, fathers must fight as beasts in the jungle. That life may have something of decency, something of beauty – a picture, a new dress, a bit of cheap lace fluttering in the window – for this, men who work down in the mines must struggle and lose, struggle and win.”

In June of 1914, she came to British Columbia. Two thousand Vancouver Island coal miners were in the second year of a desperate struggle against the mines’ grasping owners. Their union had sent for Mother Jones to buoy the strikers’ spirits. She made the long journey to Seattle from the violent Colorado coalfields, where striking miners were being gunned down by the state militia. As she prepared to board the steamer for Victoria, however, Canadian officials barred her way, labeling the feisty 77-year old “a disturbing element…likely to stir up trouble.” Mother Jones, who had friends in high places, retorted: We’ll see about that. She contacted U.S. Labour Secretary William B. Wilson, a former official of the United Mineworkers Union, who pulled strings in Ottawa, demanding that she receive “every right she is entitled to as an American citizen”. The next day, Mother Jones was on her way to Canada. The country was not new to her. A daughter of Irish parents, driven from their homeland by the potato famine, she grew up in Toronto, educated at Toronto Normal School, before heading permanently to the United States at the age of 23.

In Nanaimo, Mother Jones received a rapturous reception from the hard-pressed miners. As she recounted in her autobiography: “A regiment of Canadian Kilties met the train, squeaking on their bagpipes. Down the street came a delegation of miners [who] wore the badge of the working class—the overalls. I held a tremendous meeting that night, and the poor boys who had come up from the subterranean holes of the earth to fight for a few hours of sunlight, took courage. I brought them the sympathy of the Colorado strikers, a sympathy and understanding that reaches across borders and frontiers.”

A photo of that first meeting shows crowds of miners and their families, decked out in the best clothes they could manage, gathered on a hillside as Mother Jones hammers home her message of miner solidarity and resistance. From there, she went to four other strike battlegrounds, including Ladysmith and Cumberland. Years later, one of the strikers remembered: “She was a fiery one. I think she was 4-foot-5 or something. A short woman but, by God, she was something.” Mother Jones finished her BC visit with a rousing speech at the Labour Temple in Vancouver. Before an overflow crowd, she called for unity and a general strike, if necessary, to win the battle of the coalfields.. “Capitalism,” she told cheering trade unionists, “has danced too long on the hearts of the aching miners.”

 

MJ Funeral Headline

When miners’ guardian angel died in 1930 at the age of 93, no less than a young Gene Autry, the famed, future Singing Cowboy, recorded The Death of Mother Jones. Sang Gene: This grand old champion of labor/Was known in every land/She fought for right and justice/She took a noble stand.” The song concluded: “May the miners all work together/To carry out her plan/And bring back better conditions/For every laboring man.”

Surprising, yes, but as someone pointed out, in his big hit 15 years later, Here Comes Santa Claus, Autry wrote the words: He doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, he loves you just the same.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE WATCHING MOVIES….YET AGAIN!

NOTE: This is not really a new blog posting. So apologies for repetition. I was trying to update a previous post on this from 2015 for Facebook, and ran into WordPress hell. So it’s up as an original rather than as an edit of the 2015 post, if that’s clear. Who am I again? Where’s Waldo? Anyway, Happy Workers’ Day!…

I had fun doing this a few years ago, compiling a list of my top ten films for Labour Day viewing. This was in 2014, when BC teachers, instead tending of heading back to school, were still on strike from the previous June. They would have several more weeks to go, before the longest province-wide teachers strike in BC history was over. And, just like in some of these movies, there was a happy ending. Last November, the teachers won a resounding victory in the Supreme Court of Canada, restoring classroom limits and other staffing measures the BC Liberals (remember them?) had illegally stripped from their contracts way back in 2002 (Jean Chretien was still prime minister!) The result has been the hiring of hundreds of new teachers for the new school year, making this perhaps the best ever Labour Day for BC teachers.

So, in response to absolutely no demand, here’s my Top 10 List again. Please scrutinize the comments, since there are some good proposed additions to the list. I, myself, would definitely add the recent movie Pride, which is now one of my favourite union films. It’s a true story, combining both gay rights and the historic 1983 coal miners’ strike, and is terrific from start to finish. Highly-recommnded. And I note that the great Charles Demers, writer, comedian and socialist extraordinaire, is high on Billy Elliott as a union movie, since the same miners’ strike depicted in Pride is very much a part of the inspiring saga of young Billy’s aspirations to be a dancer.

Anywhere, here’s my list, from 2014. Additions welcome!

https://mickleblog.wordpress.com/2014/09/01/labour-movie-viewers-of-the-word-unite/

IN THE BEGINNING…THERE WAS DAVE BARRETT

Image 7Watching the joyous, almost giddy swearing-in of the province’s new premier and his gender-balanced cabinet, I couldn’t help thinking of BC’s very first transition of power to the NDP, so long ago the Vancouver Sun had two full-time labour reporters. That historic ground-breaker took place way back in 1972, or five years before David Eby, the province’s new Attorney General, was born. July 18 was only the third such right-to-left tilt in BC history. Of course, that’s three more than the zero Stanley Cups won by the hapless Canucks, and just enough to keep politics interesting and a semblance of two-party democracy alive in BC’s polarized environment. No wonder John Horgan couldn’t keep that big goofy grin off his face. But the circumstances could not have been more different than the first official visit to Government House by an NDP premier-in-waiting. No live TV, no tweets, no hoopla from First Nations dancers. Very little buzz at all. Yet it was a pivotal moment for the province, never to be the same again. So, for David Eby and “all you kids out there”, return with us now to that thrilling day of yesteryear, when NDP leader Dave Barrett succeeded the indomitable W.A.C. Bennett as premier of British Columbia.

Given the NDP’s string of 12 consecutive, electoral defeats, going back to the formation of its CCF predecessor in 1933, it was a day many thought they would never see in their lifetime. Against all expectations, however, the party’s 13th campaign proved lucky beyond imagining. On August 30, 1972, Bennett’s 20-year grip on power came to a decisive end. The NDP won a stunning, landslide victory that few, beyond Barrett and a few canny observers, saw coming. The hysteria, bedlam and sheer outpouring of joy at party headquarters that night was off the charts. The “socialist hordes” were inside the gates at last.

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Yet such was the strange, almost surreal, nature of the times, like Monty Python’s depiction of the dull life of Ralph Mellish, suddenly, nothing happened. Barrett had no idea when he would actually get to be premier. The shattered, 72-year old Bennett said nothing about how and when the transfer of power from Social Credit would take place. An eerie, political silence descended on Victoria. Unsure of protocol, for much of the next two weeks, Barrett sat at home in Coquitlam, twiddling his thumbs, waiting for a summons to Government House. Finally, on the morning of Sept. 15, Bennett officially resigned, and the long-anticipated, formal phone call from Deputy Provincial Secretary Lawrie Wallace came through. The boyish, joke-cracking, 41-year old social worker, son of an East Vancouver fruit peddler, would be sworn in that afternoon as premier of British Columbia, the first Jew and the first socialist to hold the province’s top elected position.

Still, given the absurdly short notice, Barrett had to hurry. He scrambled his wife and kids into the family Volvo and headed off to Tsawwassen for the ferry to Swartz Bay. The premier-to-be’s vehicle took its place in line with everyone else. Once on the other side, Barrett realized he didn’t know exactly where to go. Fishing a dime from his pocket, he used a pay phone at the ferry terminal to call Government House for precise directions. “I think he reached the gardener,” Shirley Barrett laughed later. Barrett parked the car in the visitors’ parking lot, and the family sauntered happily up the driveway. Barrett’s tie flapped casually in the breeze, his teenaged sons grudgingly wearing jackets, but tieless.

The new premier was sworn in before a few officials and associates, family and the media. As he signed the book, a photographer asked him to “look up, Mr. Premier”. Sun columnist Allan Fotheringham reported that Barrett displayed a look of surprised delight at hearing himself addressed as “premier” for the first time. Afterwards, he lifted a glass of champagne and proclaimed: “This breaks a 20-year fast.” Outside, queried how he felt, the province’s 26th premier replied: “I feel a little more honourable.”

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An hour later at the legislature, the province’s first socialist cabinet was sworn in. Fotheringham watched Barrett, closely. He wrote: “[He] wore a continuing grin of simple pleasure. It was not a smug, greedy look. Just a boyish failure to subdue his true feelings.” It was if he knew already his government would fundamentally change the province. There would be no hesitation, no turning back.

Four and a half decades later, it was the turn of another NDP leader to take the oath of office. This was a far more public, more high-spirited swearing-in than the low-key ceremony that ushered Dave Barrett into office. The ornate room at Government House was packed, befitting a date for the transition set well in advance, rather than by the back-of-the-envelope whim of Wacky Bennett. TV networks carried the ceremony live. First Nations dancers were front and centre. All 40 NDP MLA’s were there, brought to the august residence in a rented bus. “That’s the way I roll,” said Horgan.

The atmosphere could not have been more happy and relaxed. Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon, who made the critical, pressure-packed decision to reject Christy Clark’s request for an election and call on the NDP to give government a whirl, got into the spirit of things. After Horgan, while taking the first oath of office, awkwardly stopped at “I’, without repeating his full name, she quipped “He’s a quick learner”, when he got the second and third oath right. Her Majesty’s Representative also gave Agriculture Minister Lana Popham an affectionate hug, after Popham inked her name in the ceremonial book. It was that kind of affair.

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Now comes the hard part, of course. Governing is never easy, especially when so many are out to get you. But Horgan has wisely copied one of the positive pages from the Barrett playbook: bring in simple and popular measures that help those who need it most right off the bat. Besides quickly increasing the minimum wage and welfare rates, the Barrett government enacted as its first order of business a guaranteed “mincome” of $200 a month for the province’s senior citizens. The first program of its kind in North America, it remained the most cherished of all the far-reaching moves by the NDP over the next 39 months. Mincome, said Social Services Minister Norm Levi, represents “the unfinished work of the socialist movement in its concern for people of all ages”.

On his third day in office, Horgan hiked disability assistance and welfare rates by $100 a month, the first welfare increase in more than 10 years. It was a good start.