Monday, October 26, 2009

Cancer diagnosis leads doctor on literary discovery

As a Social Credit MLA, Dr. Howard McDiarmid helped create Pacific Rim National Park before building the new Wickaninnish Inn at Tofino. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 26, 2009


Three years ago, Dr. Howard McDiarmid received a grave diagnosis.

He had leukemia. He would need chemotherapy.

As a doctor himself, he knew only too well the ramifications.

Many thoughts come with such news. Family. Friends. One’s own mortality.

Dr. McDiarmid also had a less typical reaction.

Time to start writing.

It was a tall order for someone who had not written anything much longer than a patient’s prescription.

The doctor was unsentimental about his own predicament.

“It was important to get the story out,” he told me recently, “before I croaked.”

The tale was about how a prairie boy became a country doctor in an isolated fishing village before adding a politician’s duty to his working day, gaining the nickname “the friend of the drinking man,” while also helping turn a spectacular beach into a national park before building a world-class resort.

There was also tragedy in his story, which he acknowledges but about which he does not dwell.

At 82, the doctor retains an impish sense of humour, expressed by a vocabulary displaying a familiarity with several of the more popular vulgarisms, which he uses as punctuation when he tells a story.

The banker’s son toted bags in summer as a bellboy at the Banff Springs Hotel, earning enough in salary and tips to finance medical studies in Winnipeg. He interned in Vancouver, choosing the coast as a means of avoiding yet another prairie winter. He pursued a pretty nurse to Bermuda, where, sitting on a hill overlooking an azure harbour and a city of pastel homes, he proposed marriage, saying, “Let me take you away from all this.”

The couple moved to Tofino, where he became the only doctor for miles and she worked in the hospital, filling in as his surgical nurse assistant. He spent three days a week in Tofino, two days in Ucluelet, piloting a Chevy Bel Air along the washboard road connecting the two isolated communities.

Dr. McDiarmid delivered about 100 babies every year. His own family was growing, three sons followed by a fourth pregnancy. His wife, the former Lynn Honeyman, suffered from nausea and fatigue. Coincidentally, he had samples provided by company touting a new wonder drug.

A daughter, named Karen, was born with severe disabilities. She died young. The drug was thalidomide. His wife was the only patient to whom he prescribed the samples, which, tragic as that was, provided some relief. The guilt was as much as he could bear.

In 1966, he decided to run for office, a move that did not win unanimous approval in his own household. “I married you for better or for worse,” his wife told him, “but not for politics.” He belonged to Social Credit in a riding of resource workers, many of them staunch unionists. The NDP incumbent had won five consecutive elections over 14 years.

He knew Socreds were seen as either “right-of-centre pragmatists,” or “anti-union, right-wing zealots.” Dr. McDiarmid presented himself as a middle-of-the-road maverick.

The Socreds were masters at hoopla on the hustings. A three-piece band was hired and the singer Rudolph Boyce, of Barbados, who had been befriended on a Caribbean holiday, was imported to Vancouver Island for the campaign.

Since no signs were permitted within 500 feet of a polling station, the campaign had a plane circle at that height while trailing a banner reading, “Stay on top. Vote McDiarmid.”

He ran on two planks — a promise to improve Highway 4, and a promise to create an oceanside national park. He scored an upset.

He joined a Socred caucus headed by W.A.C. Bennett, a teetotaler not alone in his temperance. When the government reduced the number of liquor outlets in Port Alberni, the doctor made a plea in the Legislature on behalf of his beer-loving lumberjack and fishermen constituents. The passion with which he presented his case led a wag to dub him the “drinking man’s friend.”

After two years as a backbencher, with another election approaching, he at last won an audience with the premier, who also served as finance minister and chairman of the Treasury Board.

Dr. McDiarmid took a seat in the premier’s office.

“Well,” Mr. Bennett asked, “what do you need?”

Two things, the MLA replied. First, a switchback on the treacherous highway needed to be relocated.

How much?

The MLA provided an estimate. The premier dialed the deputy highways minister for confirmation of the cost. Before he hung up the telephone, the premier told the doctor, “It’s just had Treasury Board approval.”

What one-man government lacks in democracy it delivers in efficiency.

The doctor then outlined the importance of the creation of a park to his own re-election chances.

“You will get your park,” the premier vowed.

The doctor won re-election by just 329 votes out of more than 15,000 ballots.

Sure enough, the Pacific Rim National Park was established in 1971, preserving Long Beach and some of the most spectacular scenery in the land.

While many were responsible for its creation, the doctor feels the premier would not have put his name behind the project if it would not have benefitted his party.

“I knew in my heart that if there hadn’t been a Socred in Alberni at that time promoting the park it never would have happened,” Dr. McDiarmid said. “He wouldn’t have spent the money.”

By 1972, the doctor had moved to Victoria. The doc proved a bit too rough-hewn for the matrons of Oak Bay. He was thrashed at the polls.

The highway back in Alberni was repaired, but the new NDP MLA got to cut the ribbon.

Many years later, Dr. McDiarmid helped build the new Wickaninnish Inn with a group of investors. The resort is now family owned and managed by one of his three sons.

After his leukemia diagnosis, the doctor hired a typist and a topnotch copy editor. He got Grace McCarthy, a former party leader, to write a foreword and a postscript for his 103-page memoir, “Pacific Rim Park.”

He ordered 300 copies printed, for which he is charging $18.95.

It is a rollicking, funny book, a quick read that offers insight into a raucous era in provincial politics.

His cancer in remission, he’s thinking he might have time to write an entire book about the Wick Inn.

This, too, must be said.

Any friend of the drinking man is a friend of mine.

No comments: