Auntie Irene, Helena Gutteridge and The Mayor

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At the age of 70, my beloved Auntie Irene, under her scholastic name of Irene Howard, published her definitive biography of Helena Gutteridge, Vancouver’s first woman “alderman”. Ten years later, when she was 80, she completed her remarkable book Gold Dust On His Shirt, a moving saga of her family’s working class life in the gold mines of British Columbia, feathered with impeccable research of the times. At 90 she published a very fine poem, which is reproduced below.

And one morning last month, at the age of 94 and a half, Auntie Irene sat in the front row of chairs arrayed in a room off the main lobby at city hall, looking as elegant and vivacious as anyone who pre-dated Vancouver’s Art Deco municipal masterpiece by 14 years could dare to look.

She was there as a guest of honour, and rightly so, for the unveiling of a national historic plaque paying tribute to Helena Gutteridge, the woman she had written so authoritatively about more than 20 years earlier. Without Auntie Irene’s book, Gutteridge would almost certainly be just another footnote in the city’s neglected history of those who fought to make life better. With justification, Auntie Irene had subtitled her biography: The Unknown Reformer. Not only did her chronicle bring Gutteridge to public prominence, it was she who submitted the application for her recognition to Parks Canada and the august Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. The application had been gathering dust throughout the nearly 10 years of government by the Harper Conservatives, who evinced no interest in commemorating activists, let alone a strong, challenging woman like Helena Gutteridge.

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From the moment she arrived in Vancouver in 1911, Gutteridge had set to work to change the way things were. She was a relentless campaigner for women’s suffrage, a social reformer and active trade unionist, president of the local tailors’ union and the first woman to crack the executive of the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council. In 1914, she established a successful cooperative to provide employment for impoverished women, producing toys, dolls and Christmas puddings. She was the driving force behind the province’s first minimum wage for women and led a courageous, spirited, four-month strike by women laundry workers in the fall of 1918.

Marriage and a move to a Fraser Valley arm curtailed her activism for a time, but the Depression re-ignited her fire. Her marriage over, she returned to Vancouver a strong supporter of the new CCF and in 1937, Gutteridge entered history as the first woman elected to city council, championing, among other causes, low-income housing. Demonstrating anew her commitment to the oppressed, she hired on as a welfare officer in a Japanese-Canadian internment settlement, quarreling at times with bureaucrats who criticized her for being too generous. At the age of 66, low on money, Gutteridge went to work for a time at a city cannery. Despite the physical toll, she told friends she appreciated the chance to learn about the harsh conditions faced by her fellow assembly-line workers. For the rest of her life, living on a small pension, she threw herself into the cause of international peace, rejecting attempts to brand her as a “red”. When she died at the age of 81, her passing was noticed, but barely.

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Now, thanks largely to Auntie Irene, the contribution to the cause by Helena Gutteridge will not be forgotten. The mayor was there, pointing out that “we continue her work in earnest at city hall”. Liberal MP Joyce Murray was there, along with four city councillors, reporters, and of course, members of our family. There was a fuss made over Auntie Irene. She was interviewed by the Vancouver Courier, providing her usual trenchant comments on the significance of Helena Gutteridge. “When she saw something that needed to be done, she rolled up her sleeves and did it,” she told the Courier’s Martha Perkins. “I admire the fact that she was so progressive. She looked at the slums and thought: ‘This shouldn’t be.’” To our pleased applause, she was singled out from the podium, and, at the end of the formalities, the mayor came over to say ‘hello’. Gregor Robertson was more than gracious, He sat down beside Auntie Irene, and the two engaged in a lively conversation both seemed to enjoy. After bantering that she didn’t know whether to call him Your Excellency, Your Worship or Gregor (she settled on ‘Gregor’), she reminded the mayor of Helena Gutteridge’s political work and her passion for social housing. “It was a big and sorry problem, which she just took on and brought the other councilors with her.”

His Worship told me later: “It was great to have a chat with her. It’s always a highlight to connect with elders who have seen this city and world transform.” Indeed, Auntie Irene is almost the last surviving member in our extended family who were part of the resolute generation that persevered through the Depression, World War Two, the Cold War and so much more. The toughest thing I ever faced was running out of dope at a be-in.

Born in Prince Rupert in 1922, she had a childhood of upheaval, moving from mine to mine, living in tents and log cabins, and one of tragedy, shooed into the kitchen at the age of nine, as her mother lay dying on the sofa. There were three elder brothers, Art, Verne and Ed, then Irene and young Freddie. Their life was all about hard work and survival in the toughest of conditions, similar to the lives of so many British Columbians, whose labour built this province. At last, ironically, just as the Depression began, there was permanent work for her father Alfred Nels Nelson and two of “the boys” at the Pioneer Gold Mine near Bralorne. No one got rich. It was the Depression, after all. But there was stability. Inevitably, perhaps, it did not last. In 1935, her father was diagnosed with silicosis. At 60, his life as a working miner was over, with little to show for it but a deadly disease.

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He took up chicken farming in the Fraser Valley. That’s where our families intertwined. My mother’s parents were trying to extract a living from a stone-strewn farm in nearby Aldergrove. She and Irene became lifelong friends. The bonds were further fastened when Irene’s brother Ed married my mother’s younger sister Greta. In January, 1948, Alfred Nels Nelson took his final short breath and was gone. Years later, Auntie Irene wrote, bitterly: “Miners have died before from silicosis, but these men weren’t my father. Some fifty years later, as I write this, I sit and cry, and it’s not just about the oxygen tent and the desperate last gasps and my not being there that night. It’s about the gold, the Christly useless gold (that’s his word, ‘Christly’) stashed away somewhere – in Ottawa at the Royal Mint I guess, and Fort Knox, Kentucky.”

Her upbringing and the stark injustices meted out to ordinary people led to a career that produced numerous historical essays on workers and women, plus, of course, her authoritative account of Helena Gutteridge, which was short-listed for both a BC Book Prize and the City of Vancouver Book Prize and, as mentioned, her moving story of her own immigrant family, Gold Dust On His Shirt. It is a book that cries out for a wider audience.

So, all hail Auntie Irene and her other persona, Irene Howard. When you are ninety-four and a half years old, just waking up to the breaking of another dawn is a big deal. But how gratifying to have had that special day, when we all paid court. Her smile could have melted armies. At times, it truly is A Wonderful Life.

As promised, here is her marvelous poem, a tribute to the working life of her Scandinavian father, published in her 91st year.

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DAL RICHARDS, THE BANDLEADER WHO ALMOST LIVED FOREVER

 

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I certainly didn’t know Dal Richards well. But I knew all about him, and I loved running into him. How often do you get to shake hands and say ‘hello’ and ‘thanks’ to a living legend? Vancouver’s King of Swing had a gig every New Year’s Eve for 79 years, which, as the whimsical Richards never tired of pointing out, must be some kind of world record.

This year, Dal didn’t make it. The bandleader, who really did seem like he would live forever, passed away five days short of his 98th birthday on, yes, New Year’s Eve. No one ever accused Dal Richards of not having a sense of occasion.

The thing about Dal was not only his accomplishments as a terrific bandleader and musician, but that he kept on playing. The years rolled by, and you kept wondering, will this be the year Dal Richards finally hangs up his baton, clarinet and sax? But he never really did. He carried on his joyful work well into his 98th year, until a bout of illness near the end stilled him at last.

Richards was a living history of Vancouver, playing all those joints, dives and booze cruises that have long since passed into the city’s past. And of course, he also had the best regular gig of all, at the swank Panorama Roof on the top floor of the Hotel Vancouver, where his swing band became an institution. Their show was broadcast nationally on CBC Radio for years. Decades later, according to Vancouver Sun chronicler John Mackie, Dal could still recite the mellow announcer’s introductory words by heart: “It’s Saturday night, and the CBC presents the music of Dal Richards and his Orchestra from the Panorama Roof. High atop the Hotel Vancouver, overlooking the twinkling harbour lights of Canada’s gateway to the Pacific, it’s music by the band at the top of the town.”

 

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His run there lasted until 1965, when, as Richards ruefully observed, rock and roll hit like a tidal wave. Big bands were suddenly quaint relics of a bygone era. They now had to scrounge for any gig they could get. On New Year’s Eve 1965, as he told John Mackie, Richards found himself lugging all his stuff up the backstairs of the old Boilermakers Hall on Pender Street for the only date his band could corral. Richards went into hotel management.

Yet he continued to maintain a band for occasional side gigs, and he never gave up his run at the Pacific National Exhibition. A monument on the fair grounds attests to his 77 straight years of PNE appearances. That, too, is surely a world record of some kind, and likely a record for the entire galaxy, as well.

Then, surprisingly, in the teeth of the heavy metal era, big bands mounted a bit of a comeback. Dal Richards was back in demand. His afternoon “tea dances” at the venerable Commodore Ballroom drew surprising crowds, and he was reborn as one of the city’s leading musicians. Probably half the city has now seen him play at some point. A medical miracle, and a legend to the end.

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One of the many things I liked about Dal Richards was the fact that he was not some kind of musical recluse, pouring over sheet music, just waiting for his next gig. He was out and about, a man about town. You never knew where you might bump into him, just being a citizen. I’ve seen him at Bard on the Beach, the memorial service for Drew Burns at the Commodore, and just this fall, at a B.C. Lions’ game. For those who don’t know, Richards had a special attachment to the gridiron Lions. His name is forever synonymous with the team’s famous fight song, Roar, You Lions, Roar, which Richards and his band used to play live at Lions’ games. Their recording of the song is still played at B.C. Place after every touchdown by the home team.

Dal also showed up at the opening of the False Creek streetcar run for the 2010 Olympics. Well, someone had to play Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Brilliant journalist that I was, I asked him if he remembered the old Vancouver streetcars. With that wonderful, ever-youthful twinkle in his eye, Dal, then 91, replied: “I remember the horse and buggy.”

RIP, Dal Richards, a happy, happy man. I’m not sure anyone brought more joy to more people in this good old city than you did. May you do the same up there in that Big Band Ballroom in the Sky.

For fans and those few new to the Richards legend, here is John Mackie’s terrific obituary in the Vancouver Sun.

http://www.vancouversun.com/richards+vancouver+king+swing+dies/11625321/story.html#ixzz3w1fNkcov

Poignantly, the last of the Vancouver Courier’s  best quotes of 2015 came from Dal Richards. On the secret of his longevity, Dal said: “I still sing and I’m still blowing my horn, playing with the saxophone and clarinet, which is good for the diaphragm. And I lead a pretty healthy lifestyle and I still take singing lessons.”

And here is Dal Richards at the age of 96, looking a lot more youthful than the aging scribe (me) beside him.

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1975: B.C.’S NASTIEST ELECTION CAMPAIGN

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(This debate on religion, featuring the four party leaders, Dave Barrett, Bill Bennet, Gordon Gibson and Scott Wallace, was a rare, boring event during the campaign.)

Forty years ago this month, all these things really happened.

The premier of British Columbia waited for the provincial election results with his wife and kids in a nondescript Coquitlam motel room behind closed drapes, the windows covered over by aluminum foil to discourage possible snipers. Plainclothes members of the RCMP prowled the corridors, making sure no one approached the premier’s room to try and make good on several anonymous death threats Barrett had received.

It was a fitting end to the nastiest, most laced-with-hysteria election campaign in B.C.’s long polarized history.

The man under police guard was Dave Barrett. For the past 39 months he had led the province’s first NDP government, transforming British Columbia from the iron-fisted, arcane administration of W.A.C. Bennett into a more modern era with a raft of unprecedented, progressive legislation. Now, it was up to the voters to decide if the NDP deserved a second term.

This time, Social Credit, under Bill Bennett, had united the right, whose fracture in 1972 provided Barrett with his large majority. And what a “right” it was. That thought of another “socialist” government caused  mouths to foam. Hysteria and nastiness were afoot in the land.

When, alone among B.C. newspapers, the Victoria Times endorsed the NDP, advertisers pulled their ads. Editor George Oake had garbage dumped on his lawn. Angry readers phoned him at home. One vowed to kill him. Another promised to make sure Oake was sent back to Russia. When his wife Lorraine answered the phone, she was told she was “dirty” and did not raise her children properly.

Fernie alderman Gus Boersma announced he was going to run for the B.C. Conservatives. A dozen local businessmen and clients warned him his insurance business would suffer, if he hurt Socred chances in the riding. Boersma withdrew. “There’s a fear campaign going on,” he told a reporter.

Another Conservative hopeful in Prince George, Alan Anderton, received threatening phone calls from people he identified as “right-wing extremists”, who ordered him to quit. As other Tory candidates dropped out, party leader Scott Wallace became furious. “Those people on the right screaming about the socialists having taken away individual freedom seem to be doing a pretty good job of it themselves, when they have the vindictiveness to blackmail you in the survival of your business,” he raged.

It happened to Liberal candidates, too. Don Carter, the party’s candidate in Kamloops, said local Social Credit members let him know his travel agency would suffer, if he didn’t withdraw. According to party president Patrick Graham, many prospective Liberal candidates were intimidated into staying on the sidelines. “Horrible calls are coming in,” Graham said. “We’re being called Commie bastards, and worse. I’ve never seen anything like this. Not in Canada.”

A government employee was punched and bodily evicted from a Social Credit rally, when he tried to yell a question at Bill Bennett. A meeting in Nanaimo was called off, after a telephoned bomb threat. At an all-party gathering in Steveston, non-Social Credit candidates were shouted down by a jeering mob that took up all the front rows.

A confidential federal government telex on the fate of B.C. Rail was stolen from an official’s briefcase. The telex wound up in the hands of Bill Bennett, who revealed its contents at a raucous Social Credit election rally.

During the campaign’s final, frantic days, outrageous ads appeared in newspapers across the province. “Thursday the election Is Freedom of Individual rights or Socialism”, read one, paid for by “A Group of Concerned Citizens.” The Canadian League of Rights rang out a warning against the NDP’s alleged desire to nationalize all major industries in the province. “Is your business…your place of work next?” A Social Credit riding association put the question in blaring block letters: “IS BRITISH COLUMBIA HEADED FOR THE FATE OF SWEDEN?” (The ad did not think this was a good thing.)

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With a day to go, Vancouver Sun columnist Jack Wasserman, who had himself been threatened for writing something critical of Social Credit, worried: “There is something Hitlerian about the atmosphere in which this election campaign [has been] carried out.”

Sensing he was going down to defeat, Barrett wound up his fiery campaign with a heartfelt plea to the people: “I have one last message. This land is your land…We must never go back.” The Social Credit campaign ended at the PNE, with MLA Bob McClelland riding in on an elephant.

Some of the hysteria carried over into the counting of ballots. A group of Social Credit scrutineers stormed into one of the tally rooms, demanding to put their own seals on the ballot boxes. When that was refused, they overturned tables before charging out, leaving behind broken glass and beer bottles. A returning officer at another riding was also harassed on election night. “It makes be boiling mad,” chief electoral officer Ken Morton told reporters the next day.

But the outcome was never in doubt. Thirty-five minutes after the polls closed, sitting in his depressing motel room, Barrett gave a thumbs-down gesture and observed: “We’re getting wiped.” The only laugh came from his 14-year old daughter Jane, who said: “If they bring back the strap, I’m quitting school.”

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Arguably the most exciting government in Canadian history was out, done in by doing too much too fast, gaffes and unsettling the powers and shakers of British Columbia in a way they had never been rattled before. But the unsurpassed legacy of the Barrett government’s brief time in office is with us still.

I itemized what they did during their scant 39 months for my book with Geoff Meggs on the Barrett years, The Art of the Impossible. The total came to 97. No government ever did so much in such a short period of time.

The Agricultural Land Reserve, ICBC, the most progressive labour code in North America, the best consumer protection legislation in Canada, the most far-reaching human rights code anywhere, with full-time human rights officers, rent controls, a Rentalsman, Mincome, Pharmacare, raising the minimum wage by 67 per cent, neighbourhood pubs, provincial ambulance service, the Islands Trust, independent boards of review for WCB appeals, Robson Square, preserving Cypress Bowl, B.C. Day, removing the sales tax from books, community health centres, B.C. Cancer Control Agency, buying Shaughnessy Hospital which became B.C. Children’s Hospital, the SeaBus, banning the strap, scrapping a proposed coal port at Squamish, the Royal Hudson and Princess Marguerite, saving Victoria Harbour from development, the B.C. Energy Commission, purchase of Columbia Cellulose and Ocean Falls pulp mills, providing full bargaining rights to provincial government employees, an end to pay toilets, to the relief of all, and on and on.

The Dave Barrett government (1972-1975), RIP.

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AN ODDBALL LOOK BACK AT BILL BENNETT

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For some reason, Bill Bennett seemed to like me. In the few times we encountered each other, we got along. Goodness knows why, since, as a labour reporter, I had little time for the wealth of anti-labour legislation that came down the legislative pipe during Bennett’s 11 years as premier, topped by his outlandish, 26-bill “restraint” package in 1983. It went far beyond “austerity”. One of the bills gave his government the right to fire public sector workers without cause and lay them off without regard to seniority. Among the first to be shown the door was BCGEU vice-president Diane Woods. Nor was that all.

On that single unforgettable day, the government also wiped out the Human Rights Commission (employees fired on the spot), gave landlords the right to evict tenants without cause, abolished rent controls, severely curtailed employment standards, tightened government control over school boards, community colleges and course content, weakened public scrutiny of Crown corporations, slashed social spending, and announced the layoffs of hundreds of government employees. It was a neo-con revolution of the right, hailed by the Fraser Institute and the Milton Friedman folks in Chicago. “Black Thursday” led to the most concerted protest fightback in the history of B.C., bringing the province to the verge of an all-out general strike. Er…where was I…? Oh yes, Bill Bennett and me.

As I said, all my dealings with Bennett the Younger were cordial, even friendly. I particularly remember one strange Friday night in the good old days when there were labour reporters. I was working the night labour beat at the Vancouver Sun, looking forward to a drink later on at the Press Club across the street. Out of nowhere, the “labour desk” got a call from one of Bennett’s aides, saying the Premier would like to have dinner with me. But of course. Why wouldn’t he? So out I headed on that dark and stormy night to a Japanese restaurant in deepest Richmond.

And there he was, leader of all the people, dining out with a few of his cronies. It was such a simpler time. Turned out the Premier wanted to talk to me about what he intended to do to ensure there would be no repeat of a bitter ferries strike that had just convulsed the province. His plan involved curbing the powers of the quite wonderful Labour Relations Board established under the NDP, and broadening the definition of essential services.

We had a pleasant conversation. I drank green tea and took notes. Bennett didn’t seem to mind my defense of the LRB and its brilliant chairman, Paul Weiler. Nor did he seem perturbed when I pointed to a strike-ending document authored by Mr. Weiler that, among other things, ruled out another aspect of Bennett’s agenda: potential prosecution of ferry workers for defying a back-to-work order.

It was actually kind of odd, as I realized little old labour reporter me knew more about the ins and outs of the ferry dispute than the premier of the province. But never mind. When I got back to the office, I had a big scoop that was splashed all over the front page of the Saturday Sun.

Nor was that the end of this gripping, personal saga. A few days later, Bill Bennett had to stand up in the legislature and acknowledge that he may have misled the House, after an article by that same little old labour reporter me contradicted something he had said. It’s all a bit complicated and picayune, but here is my shiny Bill Bennett moment.

First, Hansard from Oct 19, 1977:

MRS. E.E. DAILLY (Burnaby North): To the Premier. Was the Premier aware of the Weiler document the evening before he went on public television?

HON. MR. BENNETT: No.

COCKE: Rod Mickleburgh says he showed it to you the night before and you talked to him about it the night before.

 DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order, please.

And then, on Oct. 20:

HON. W.R. BENNETT (Premier): Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of clarification…to clarify an answer made in question period yesterday.

DEPUTY SPEAKER: Please proceed.

HON. MR. BENNETT: Mr. Speaker, I must say that in answer to a question from the member for Burnaby North (Mrs. Dailly) yesterday, in the shortness of my answer I may have inadvertently misled the House. The question was: was I aware of the LRB document? The answer would have to be yes, but I had not read the contents. That was the way I had understood the question. But I would point out that I did attend in dinner with Mr. Mickleburgh, who was there to receive a statement in advance of my press conference the following morning, and he has suggested that he mentioned the document during the dinner. While I cannot recall the contents of what he said, it must be said that I was aware that the Labour Relations Board did have a document. For that the answer would be “yes.” Had I read it and did I know the contents? The answer would be “no” at that time.

For the only time in my mediocre career, the score stood: Mickleburgh 1 Premier of British Columbia 0.

We encountered each other a few times after that, all private, all rather enjoyable. He never mentioned my calling him to account. Unlike many other politicians, Bill Bennett, frequently a target of intense media criticism, never held a grudge against reporters. Former Province legislative columnist Allen Garr, who wrote a hard-hitting book on Bennett called Tough Guy and was never easy on him in his columns, said he ran into the former premier a few years ago and was greeted with a genial ‘hello”, warm handshake and heartfelt pleasantries. Mind you, Bill Bennett shook hands with anybody….Image 11

As some have mentioned, Bennett was also known for his wit, though it was almost always at the expense of others and often somewhat mean. He once referred to NDP transportation critic James Lorimer, who favoured light rail over Skytrain, as “a streetcar named retire”. During a controversy that had erupted over vacant space in government office buildings under the Barrett government, he ended a corridor confrontation with Public Works Minister Bill Hartley, by saying the minister should have a sign on his forehead proclaiming “This Space for Rent”. I have other examples in the same vein, including a particularly good zinger on Bill Vander Zalm, whom he loathed, but you get the picture. Given that the NDP used to taunt him as “Daddy’s Boy”, perhaps he can be forgiven if they seem a bit harsh. (Bob Williams was the most persistent of the “Daddy’s Boy” taunters, until Bennett shot back, unfortunately: “At least I have a father…”)

Bennett really was a “tough guy” of the back alley variety. He gave no quarter. He played to win. Not an instinctive politician, he had an unerring sense for weakness. When union leader Jack Munro came to his house in Kelowna that infamous Sunday night in November, 1983, with an escalation of labour’s general strike on the table, Bennett quickly realized the unions wanted out of it more than he did. He could get a deal by offering almost nothing. Essentially, Bennett called their bluff, and the unions folded like a sack of potatoes. (Often forgotten is that Bennett did budge on the trade union issues that launched the whole Solidarity movement, but that happened before the ill-fated, so-called “Kelowna Accord”. One of the anti-union bills was dropped and the other never seriously applied. The layoffs proceeded, but they did so according to seniority, under employees’ union contracts. Diane Woods got her job back.)

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Even his family’s paid obituary in the newspaper referred to Bill Bennett’s competitive fire, which hardly diminished as he grew older. At 68, nearly 14 years after he resigned and slipped back to a secluded, private life in Kelowna, Bennett was summoned to testify at the inquiry into the legendary Bingogate scandal. The inquiry was called to look into the illegal redirection of charity bingo funds by NDP stalwart and former cabinet minister, Dave Stupich.

Asked about a mysterious memo that suggested Bennett somehow called off an investigation into Stupich’s charity bingos, the former premier denied even knowing about the matter. “Quite frankly, rest assured I never went out of my way to save Dave Stupich from himself,” he asserted, much to the merriment of those attending.

Later in his testimony, the great “Scotch and cornflakes” saga came up. Stupich had intimated in a letter to his constituents that Bennett was a heavy drinker, known to pour a bit of Scotch on his morning cornflakes. When Stupich refused to retract, Bennett sued. Stupich, along with his cohort, former Attorney-General Alex Macdonald, thought there was great political sport to be made, and fought the matter in court. Bennett, of course, didn’t fool around. He hired the best libel lawyer in the province, and was awarded $10,000, a hefty sum in those days. “Mr. Stupich didn’t plead truth. He tried to play political. I can only suggest he either got poor legal advice, or no legal advice,” the 68-year old Bennett told the inquiry.

He paused, then added, evoking more loud laughter: “For the record, his lawyer was Alex Macdonald.”

Old habits died hard.

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(The Godfather passes the torch in the vineyards of Kelowna.)

COMRADES-IN-ARMS, LEST WE FORGET

There’s nothing quite like the experience of talking to a veteran. They have so much to tell us of a time we peacenik baby-boomers simply can’t comprehend. Death and carnage and mayhem all around them, seeing buddies blown up or shot before their eyes, killing enemy soldiers themselves, and yet they carry on with the fight. Not quite the ordeal of finding a downtown parking spot.

Over the years, I’ve interviewed veterans from the Boer War (no, I wasn’t there…), World War One (the worst of all wars), and the Second World War against fascism. Never have I failed to come away in awe at their courage in signing up, the hell they experienced, and their vivid recollections of a distant past.

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My own personal hero is First World War vet, William “Duke” Procter. Duke was the sunniest centenarian I ever met, and the liveliest. But every time the war was mentioned and he remembered the boyhood comrades he had lost, his eyes would well with tears. He made a vow to himself that he would never forget them. So, every Remembrance Day, he would ignore his advancing years and march with all the younger guys to the small cenotaph in Lumby, B.C. I covered his last march for the Globe and Mail, when Duke was 104. You can read my story here. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/great-war-veteran-104-is-still-in-step/article18436414/

Recently, I had the good fortune to interview World War Two veterans Gordie Bannerman and Orme Payne, 94 and 93 years old, respectively. They were best friends growing up, farm boys from southern Saskatchewan. They enlisted in the same regiment on the same day, and went right through the fierce, bloody campaigns in Italy and Holland together. Both escaped with barely a scratch, and 70 years later, they remain the very closest of friends. But there was one harrowing night just three weeks before V-Day when….well, you can read about what happened and their extraordinary friendship in this piece I wrote for Wednesday’s Globe and Mail. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/brothers-in-arms-a-friendship-that-has-endured-long-after-their-warended/article27197709/

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(Gordie Bannierman, 94: Yours Truly; Orme Payne, 93)

Despite their age, neither Bannerman nor Payne seem to have forgotten anything of their war years. Both are born story-tellers, still sharp as the proverbial tack. Their recollections are a treasure trove, made even more rewarding by the fact that so few vets from the Second World War are yet with us. I relished every moment of my time with them. Here are a few snippets from what they told me that didn’t make it into my story for the Globe. Such a time.

ENLISTING, 1940

Bannerman: We made a decision to sign up. What were we going to do? There wasn’t 10 cents in most houses, and if there was 10 cents, your dad put it into the collection plate. So there was no money, no crop. Really, you might call it an escape.

We were in Aneroid until the beginning of September. It was the first train ride for a lot of the fellows, and there was waving goodbye to everybody, kissing all the girlfriends. Some older fellows from Moose Jaw were along. They knew some taxi drivers, and the next thing you know, the train is loaded up with beer and everybody is sloshed.

We arrived in Indian Head. They had the band out, and they had the 76th Battery, our sister battery, all lined up. And cripes, Major Jacobs called us to attention. I think the only two who didn’t drink were Joe Spork and me, and maybe Orme. Four guys fell flat on their faces. It was an auspicious entrance to Indian Head, I’ll tell you.

ARRIVAL IN ENGLAND

Bannerman: There were sunken ships all along the Mersey in Liverpool. One of our guys, Billy, he was a signaler with us, could really talk. Even better than me, and he could swear better, too. He was yapping away as we sailed in, and a seagull just crapped right in his mouth. He spit and swore for 10 minutes. And the Regimental Sgt. Major, who was pretty strait-laced, had to crack up over it. So that was our landing in England. We took the little train to Aldershot. Arrived there at night. We went into the old Waterloo Barracks, which had been there for a hundred years. I don’t think the blankets had been washed all that time.

LAYING TELEPHONE LINES

Payne: I was a land sergeant in charge of troop signals. My job was to stay out of trouble and keep the communications working. Basically, telephone lines. You could not depend on those radios. They’d break down when you needed them the most. I would set up telephone lines. Mile after mile after mile.

I would be given a map reference. We’re going to cross the river at Point X here and I got to have a line up there. It had to be done at night. You’re in a strange country, in the dark, and you’ve got to avoid roads and mine fields. Patrols were wandering through. I really don’t know how, but my crew and I always got it done.

YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW

Bannerman: When Orme was promoted, the officer he reported to said: “You see this paper, Payne?” It was a blank piece of paper. “That’s my shit list, and you’re on it.” Orme says: I just came in the door, sir. “Well, you might not be on it right now, but you will be.” He had to stick it out there all during the Hitler Line, and he had a pretty tough time, let me tell you, right up there with the infantry and forward observation officers.

Payne: My god, it was amazing anyone survived, not just the shelling, but eating out of those aluminum mess tins….

ON THE GOTHIC LINE

Bannerman: Orme had to do communication for the forward observation officers. There was one place in the mountains that we called ‘the mad mile’, because it was so exposed to the Germans. Every time a motorcycle went along that road, the Germans started shelling him. We’d take bets. Is that guy going to make it? No kidding. Orme never realized this was going on until a long time after. He said, Cripes they were making bets to see if I’d be hit…

Payne: The troop commander said we need you up here as soon as possible. I said: How do I get there? He said: Follow the burning tanks. There were 11 tanks in a row, all blown up. A 75 mm tank gun was hidden in the bush, and the guy waited until this column of tanks went through, then he just started with the tail end, shooting them all in the rear, right near the motor. He got every one of them. And then the bugger gave up. They took him prisoner. That’s war.

THE BEST OF FRIENDS

Bannerman and Payne, relaxing after 73 straight days of combat and shelling, as the Canadian Army fought its way up the spine of Italy against elite, battle-hardened German troops.

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THE BATTLE OF OTTERLO AND A VERY CANADIAN PASSWORD

Payne: A bunch of Germans walked in on us in the middle of the night. I’ll tell you, it was blacker than the inside of a cow. If we’d been fighting by the book, we would have been goners. But we were so darned mixed up, we had them mixed up. And somehow we got out of it.

One of my own guys damn near shot me. Little Peter Powliss. He was a gun sergeant. Little short guy in a slit trench, We changed the password every day and that night the password was Hockey, and the answer was Puck. So he yells Hockey and I yell back Puck. He put this .303 right in my face pretty much. I kept saying “Puck… Puck… Puck”. I was sounding like an outboard motor. Finally, I just slapped that darned rifle, and it went off right by my ear. My head rang all night. The stuff that went on that night was enough to make a rabbit spit in a bull’s eye.

(Incidentally, the CBC had a first-hand report of the battle from none other than a young Charles Lynch, who went on to become an illustrious Parliament Hill correspondent. Here it is: http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/ve-day-countdown-canadian-army-repels-desperate-germans)

VE-DAY

Bannerman: On May 5, the Dutch celebrated, their liberation. But we all went to bed, sleeping on the floor. We were just so tired. We couldn’t believe it was over.

Payne: Well, they officially announced it, and I’ll tell yuh, my first thought was from my own point of view, What the hell am I going to do now? I’ve got to get a job.

COMING HOME

Bannerman: We were coming back by train from New York, and we’d just crossed into Canada. There was snow on the ground. Suddenly, I heard this commotion at the end of the car. “Come quick, come quick.” And one of the prairie fellas said, “Look, Gordie, out there in the snow. Rabbit tracks.” All of a sudden, he was home. We were all home.

CANADIAN POWS, HIROSHIMA AND V-J DAY, SEVENTY YEARS LATER

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(Ottawa Citizen)

Amid all the wonderful crazy sports stuff going on, there was a very sombre anniversary. Seventy years ago this past weekend, the last, bloody gasp of World War Two came to end, with the surrender of Japan, after years of unimaginable killing. Canada was involved in the war at the very outset, when this country dispatched about 2,000 raw recruits in a hopeless move to buttress British forces in Hong Kong shortly before Pearl Harbour. A month later, the Japanese invaded. After a relatively-brief, murderous skirmish that lasted perhaps a week, Hong Kong fell to the Japanese. More than 550 Canadians were killed in the fighting or died later as starved, over-worked prisoners of war, their bodies reduced to little more than flesh and bone.

Those who survived had spent nearly four years in a hell that can scarcely be imagined today, and yet, when they returned home, they were basically ignored by the Canadian government and most Canadians. There were no glory parades or medals for them. Nor did they receive compensation for their years of forced labour until 1998, when survivors received a paltry cheque of $24,000. Today, few remain to bear witness.

If you’re in the mood to look back and reflect, I offer some stuff I wrote earlier on, plus two interesting, and conflicting, pieces on the decision to drop the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite the horrendous loss of civilian life and agony that tens of thousands of “survivors” endured, I’m not sure anyone involved in the War against Japan, let alone those near death in POW camps in the jungle and Japan, questioned it. To a man, they believed that, without Hiroshima, they might well have never seen home again.

Ten years ago, on the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Pacific War, I wrote this for the Globe and Mail.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/incoming/the-dirty-war/article984536/

UnknownThe Globe also included this vivid remembrance by Hong Kong vet Bob “Flash” Clayton, as told to me, on the vicious Battle for Hong Kong and his harrowing experience afterwards as a prisoner of war. His account is one of 20 oral histories by World War Two veterans in my book, Rare Courage. Such a time.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/incoming/they-did-terrible-things/article4119840/

Flash Clayton, one of my heroes, managed to survive until Feb. 2015. Ed Shayler whose experience is detailed in my Globe article, died in 2011. Their obits are here:

http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/thestar/obituary.aspx? pid=174091362

http://obits.dignitymemorial.com/dignity-memorial/obituary.aspx?n=Ed-Shayler&lc=3600&pid=154035109&mid=4845471

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Robert “Flash” Clayton (1921-2015), forever Rest in Peace.

And here are those opposing articles on whether the use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki could, in any sense, be justified.

First, from The Nation: http://www.thenation.com/article/why-the-us-really-bombed-hiroshima/

And then, these judicious thoughts by well-knonw war historian, Max Hastings.

http://ww2history.com/experts/Max_Hastings/The_Nuclear_Bomb

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LEE KUAN YEW AND THE CREEPING MEATBALL

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So, farewell then, Lee Kuan Yew, grand patriarch of Singapore, who never saw a critic he didn’t want to jail or sue, or a gum chewer he didn’t want to fine.

Much has been written extolling the great man, beloved of entrepreneurs and capitalists for creating a safe, uncorrupt haven for their money and by hordes of ex-pats in Asia for providing a tiny, perfect oasis for a few days’ R and R, coupled with a chance to down a Singapore Sling at the famed Long Bar of the Raffles Hotel.

But none of the lengthy obituaries has included one of the more remarkable confluences of Lee’s long career. That occurred, of all places, on the scenic, normally placid campus of the University of B.C., where he encountered an invasion of raucous ragamuffins imbued with the heady, counter-culture tonic of Yippie-dom. As a survivor of the Japanese occupation of Singapore, however, surviving the wild, student occupation of the UBC Faculty Club – with him in it! – was Peking Duck soup for the wily autocrat.

For the many poor unfortunates and obit writers with no knowledge of this momentous event, return with us now to those thrilling daze of yesteryear, when student power was afoot on campuses throughout the land, harnessed to the widespread anti-war, anti-capitalism, anti-establishment, anti-pig, pro-dope smoking rhetoric of the young. I will tell you the tale.

On a fine fall day in 1968, celebrated, head band-wearing Jerry Rubin of the Youth International Party and unkempt author of the great literary classic DO IT!, ventured north of the border to deliver what he called a “sermon” at a large public rally in front of the Student Union Building at UBC. Rubin was a self-proclaimed radical who loved media stunts, none more headline-grabbing than the Yippies’ presence at the Democratic convention in Chicago a few months earlier, where they occupied Lincoln Park and paraded their presidential candidate, a pig named Pigasus, through the streets of the Windy City. The cops responded by bashing in heads and charging Rubin et al with conspiring to riot.

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At the end of his inflammatory, UBC speech advocating abandonment of “the creeping meatball”, Rubin further urged students to take action to liberate themselves. “We’ve got all these people here. Let’s do something. Is there any place on campus that needs liberating?” Whereupon, several well-rehearsed members of the crowd yelled: “The faculty club!” And then, as The Ubyssey reported: “…off they went.”

Hundreds of students stormed through the doors of the posh faculty club, haven of tweedy, privileged professors swilling from its well-stocked liquor supply and dining on only the finest cuisine. Once ensconced inside the hallowed, professorial precincts, the unruly miscreants didn’t leave. They drank the booze, rollicked in comfy chairs, inhaled illegal substances, went for nude dips in the club’s ornamental pond, discussed the merits of political something-or-other, boogied to live music and generally got up the noses of outraged profs.

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“I’m disgusted,” stormed classics scholar Dr. Malcolm MacGregor. “This gutter-snipe comes up from the U.S. and organizes this thing, and all the students follow along like sheep.”

And where was Lee Kuan Yew during all this merry mayhem? Intrepid Ubyssey reporter James Conchie Lee Kuan Yewfound the bemused Prime Minister of Singapore relaxing in a second floor suite at the faculty club, his home during a 19-day “relax and study” visit to Vancouver. Against the wishes of a nervous security guard and a few, equally-worried faculty, Lee admitted the reporter for a brief interview. “All this isn’t bothering me at all,” he told Conchie, with a wide smile. “It takes something of a much more serious nature than this to get me excited.” He wondered out loud: “What is happening here? Everyone seems to be running around in a great fluster.” At that point, Conchie was ushered out, after Lee promised him a full interview before leaving town.

The escapade, which lasted through the night and into the next day, produced a vintage issue of The Ubyssey. You can peruse the full edition here:

http://www.library.ubc.ca/archives/pdfs/ubyssey/UBYSSEY_1968_10_25.pdf

Not only is the paper’s coverage of Rubin’s antics great fun, it’s also a wonderful time capsule. Feast on ads for the legendary Retinal Circus (Papa Bears and Easy Chairs from Seattle), the Czech movie classic Closely Watched Trains, Duthie Books on Robson (sigh), an appearance by Mother Tucker’s Yellow Duck at a weekend anti-war rally, and, best of all, Poulson’s annual typewriter sale!

At the same time, suggesting that the sentiment of the Sixties didn’t prevail everywhere on campus, there were also ads for the Canadian army’s Regular Officer Training Plan, Dale Carnegie’s appalling course: ‘How to win friends and influence people’, business management opportunities at Procter and Gamble, plus my personal favourite, a meeting of the UBC Young Socreds.

As for all those young flacks and hacks whose names are sprinkled through the pages of that particular Ubyssey close to 50 years ago, “Where are they now?” I hear you ask.

Well, Jerry Rubin, who subsequently became a stock broker (groan), is dead, hit by a car as he jaywalked on a busy LA street in 1994. Fence-sitting AMS president Dave Zirnhelt became a Cariboo cattle rancher, horse logger and two-term NDP cabinet minister. The ever-effervescent Stan Persky divides his time between Vancouver and Berlin, and writes books. AMS vice-president Carey Linde became a lawyer based on Haida Gwaii, before moving to Vancouver, where he has established a “men’s rights” practice. Oh, well…

Kirsten Emmott is a well-known poet, writer and family doctor, now living in Comox. Ubyssey movie reviewer Kirk Tougas is a renowned cinematographer, with many fine films to his credit. Contributors to a Younger Vancouver Sculptors exhibition at UBC include Gathie Falk and Takao Tanabe, both of whom went on to acclaimed, artistic careers. “Gathie Falk has some really funky pieces on display, including a grey, velvet-covered bureau with a sculptured shirt on top,” writes reviewer “F.C.”, in all likelihood, the free-spirited Fred Cawsey.

As for regular Ubyssey journos, editor Al Birnie became a printer in Toronto, news editor John Twigg spent three years as Premier Dave Barrett’s press secretary, despite his arrest in the famous Gastown Riot of 1971, wire editor Peter Ladner was fired by the Vancouver Sun for telling a public meeting that a number of Sun reporters smoked dope (not sure what happened to him after that…), associate editor and Bugs Bunny aficionado Mike Finlay went on to an illustrious career as a documentary producer at CBC Radio, reporter John Gibbs switched to the dark side for a long, distinguished career in TV news, while AMS reporter Alex Volkoff abandoned the black and white and “red all over” world of newspapers for the suave, nuanced world of diplomacy. Bonus points for the fate of Lee Kuan Yew’s favourite Ubyssey reporter, James Conchie.

They were great times.

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