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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PETER COMPARELLI, R.I.P.

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It has been a terrible year. Bowie and Prince taken far too early. Leonard Cohen leaving us to mourn and light candles against the dark. Long-time friends battling serious health issues. Fake news, the decline of newspapers and the mainstream media, more necessary than ever to hold governments and politicians to account. An antiquated electoral system, an FBI “announcement coup” against Hillary Clinton and Russian hackers delivering a sniveling, bullying, thin-skinned, shallow-thinking prima-donna with the attention span of a child to the White House, while the most adult of U.S. presidents takes his dignified leave. Terrorism in Europe. Aleppo. And now, to cap off this annus horribilis came news of the passing of Peter Comparelli, as lovely a person as there ever was in the tough, crazy world of journalism.

Beyond being a wonderful fellow and someone to enjoy a beer or five with, Peter had a special place in my heart, as the guy who took over my beloved spot on the labour beat at the Vancouver Sun. He thrived on it. A few years later, when I joined the rival Province as that paper’s labour reporter, thirsting to kick the slats out of the Sun’s coverage, I had a hard time harbouring any ill-will towards my good friend, Comparelli.

In fact, one of the best times either of us ever had on the beat was getting to cover the international convention of the Brotherhood of Teamsters in, where else, Las Vegas. We were both sent because it was a good local story. A band of feisty Vancouver dissidents had managed to get elected as delegates, and they were determined to raise the banner of reform against the organized thuggery of the big, bad, beefy Teamsters. If that embarrassed Vancouver’s own Senator Ed Lawson, the smooth, highly-paid presider over the Canadian section of the union and an international vice-president, all the better.

And they did cause a ruckus, most notably when feisty B.C. truck driver Diana Kilmury stood on the convention floor, braving the intimidating howls of several thousand male, mostly large, delegates, and denounced the Teamsters for all the criminal indictments amassed against their leaders. “I didn’t indict you,” Kilmury shouted into the mike. “But if the FBI has issued that many indictments, you must be up to something!” (In fact, then president Roy Williams was eventually sent to prison for his connections to organized crime. His prominent partner at the head table and successor, Jackie Presser, avoided going to jail only by dying of cancer.) But beyond all the great copy, and the fascination of seeing the Teamsters operate up close, with the ghost of Jimmy Hoffa hovering over them, it was a delight just to hang out in Vegas with Peter. We coughed up small amounts of money in the casinos (more by Peter, of course… ), bathed in the neon sun that banished night along the strip and spent our expense money. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Comparelli eventually moved on to cover the legislature. Then, to everyone’s surprise, off he went to sample the delights of life and journalism in Hong Kong, never to return. But, as the spontaneous outpouring of love and affection for Peter on the Pacific Press Facebook page attests, he was not forgotten in Vancouver, even after 30 years away.

Apart from his cracker-jack reporting, he was a union shop steward when those positions mattered, an exceptionally able catcher on the Sun’s competitive softball squad, teaming up with ace pitcher Kelly Evans to win so many games, and an embracer of the good times life had to offer, someone you were always glad to see. Former Sun reporter Debbie Wilson, who had decamped to Mexico, noted how grateful she was when Peter suddenly turned up, amid the ruins of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. “He was dispatched by the Sun to cover the disaster and also to find me, as I was (unknown to me) MIA.” With an innate ability to love and attract women, he broke some hearts, it must be owned, until finally meeting his match and marrying Idy. At his wedding reception in Vancouver, I had never seen him happier and more assured that he was doing the right thing.

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He worked for Asiaweek in Hong Kong, was their correspondent in Kuala Lampur, became a skilled editor, then bounced around with other publications and jobs, till it became hard to keep track. But it was in Hong Kong where he was most remembered, a regular at the city’s legendary Foreign Correspondents Club, along with other refugees from the Vancouver Sun who washed up in Hong Kong. Der Hoi-Yin, Jake van der Kamp and the irrepressible Wyng Chow were particularly close. Peter’s last trip back to Hong Kong, from his permanent home in Penang, had been in May. But Wyng Chow had been in touch with him only a few weeks ago. Though a bit less chipper than usual, with his experimental anti-cancer drugs proving difficult to manage, Wyng said Peter talked of returning for yet another reunion. News of his death was a shock. He died, at 63, from lung cancer, surrounded by Idy and his three brothers.

Farewell, Peter. We loved you, man.

His Vancouver Sun obituary is here: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/vancouversun/obituary.aspx?n=peter-comparelli&pid=183190212

And this affecting tribute from Tim Noonan of the South China Morning Post: http://www.scmp.com/sport/other-sport/article/2057942/editors-office-baseball-field-peter-comparelli-was-man-all-seasons

(photos courtesy of Wyng Chow and Der Hoi-Yin)

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Orme and Gordie, friends for life.

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(Troop Sgt. Major Gordon Bannermann, left, and Sgt. Orme Payne, shortly after 73 days in action without relief.)

For the first time in forever, World War II veteran Orme Payne did not go down to the Legion to mark Remembrance Day. He’s had a rough patch this year. After a long spell in hospital, he’s lost weight and is weaker than when I last saw him a year ago. “I’m too damned tottering on my feet,” the feisty 94-year old vet told me over the phone when I called to check on him, his voice still strong. “I’ve lost 20 pounds. I put on my blazer and it weighed a ton.” His life-long friend and fellow vet Gordon Bannerman is in tough, too, having suffered a grievous personal loss just last week.

The two have been through so much. Boyhood friends in Saskatchewan, they fought beside each other all the way through the bloody campaigns of Italy and Holland, survived some close calls, and remain, today, after more than 70 years, the very best of friends. “We still talk pretty nearly every other night,” said Orme. Of those not claimed on the battlefield, time has claimed all but a handful of wartime enlistees in the prairies’ 60th Battery of Royal Canadian Artillery. “Yep, the ranks are thinning out, all right,” said Orme, mystified that two of the few survivors are himself and his closest pal in all the world. “It’s kind of a dream in way.” As we rang off, Orme said I could call him whenever I wanted. “Anytime you want to hear a lie…”

A year ago, I wrote about their remarkable lives and friendship for the Globe and Mail. I offer it here, with immense pleasure that they are with us, still.

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(With Bannerman and Payne. John Lehmann photo.)

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/brothers-in-arms-a-friendship-that-has-endured-long-after-their-warended/article27197709/

Lest we forget.

SOLIDARITY FOREVER?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Vancouver Sun photo)

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

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

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

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READING THE PAPERS, IN SEATTLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE STORY OF THE KOMAGATA MARU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PASSING OF A NEWSPAPER MAN. RON ROSE, RIP.

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

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

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

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

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

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(A small part of the Fraser Wilson mural.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Ron Rose at his 95th birthday celebration.) 

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