Monday, January 25, 2010

Music, writing, love of fishing brought Quarrington to Vancouver Island

Paul Quarrington

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 25, 2010


Paul Quarrington came to Vancouver Island to make music, to read from his works, and, as often as he could, to fish.

For an excursion on the Cowichan River, he dressed in the layers of the winter fisherman, stuffing himself into neoprene chest waders as sleek as the steelhead whose acquaintance he tried to make.

The Cowichan’s flow in March explains its reputation for treachery, as it is both swifter and deeper than appearance. The river surprised Mr. Quarrington, who was more accustomed to what he called the “staid civility” of angling in his native Ontario.

“Steelheaders are forever emerging from rivers wearing expressions of dazed ecstasy,” he wrote in his 2003 book, “From the Far Side of the River,” “as if what they just experienced was part baptism, part roller-coaster ride.”

Mr. Quarrington died of lung cancer at his Toronto home on Thursday, a passing that has provoked many heartfelt tributes. His bereaved friends have written about him “singing with angels,” or watching hockey “on high with Teeder Kennedy.” On Saturday, “Hockey Night in Canada” honoured the author of the humourous hockey novel “King Leary” with a three-minute montage of great plays interspersed with quotations from his writing.

For the most part unstated has been his connection to British Columbia.

Born in Toronto and raised in the comfortable neighbourhood of Don Mills, he won respect and accolades for his varied talents. He wrote poetry and journalism and screenplays and novels, most notably “Whale Music,” which won the Governor General’s Award. He played guitar for the Porkbelly Futures and, earlier, bass for Joe Hall and the Continental Drift. He even co-wrote and performed a top-charting single in 1980 with “Baby and the Blues.”

While his home and his roots were centred in Toronto, his book publisher is based in Vancouver and his record label is based in Victoria.

In May, Greystone Books will release Mr. Quarrington’s “Cigar Box Banjo,” a memoir completed in the months after his diagnosis and shortly before his death.

How often did he get to Vancouver Island?

“Whenever he could,” said Michael Burke, 58, the impresario of Cordova Bay Records.

The two first met at Milneford Junior High in Don Mills when Mr. Burke, a Grade 9 clarinet player in the school band, played behind a Grade 7 student on whom fell the unwanted responsibility to narrate a piece called “Little Bop Riding Hood.” His first reaction: “This kid has got balls. This is what star quality is.”

Many years later, in 1998, Mr. Burke helped organize a Paul Quarrington Festival in Victoria. The Roxy CineGog showed “Whale Music,” the terrific dramatic comedy based on his novel, while the Ocean radio station aired “Baby and the Blues.” Kaleidoscope Theatre performed Mr. Quarrington’s “The Invention of Poetry,” while the author himself gave several readings.

His earlier visits to the city earned him rave notices in the Times Colonist newspaper, though he was as likely to appear in the fishing column as on the arts page.

“He loved to fish,” Mr. Burke said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he fished in his bathtub.”

Mr. Burke, 58, recently helped organize the Quarrington Arts Society, a charitable foundation that will award prizes to artists showing achievement in more than once discipline.

The founders have come up with an unlikely trophy in homage to the society’s namesake. It includes a three-dimensional musical note and a quotation mark attached to a base resembling a film canister.

Mr. Burke’s label handles the Porkbelly Futures, a country blues outfit whose witty lyrics reflected Mr. Quarrington’s comic take on life. In what would be Mr. Quarrington’s final performance on Vancouver Island, the band played The Queen’s Pub in Nanaimo in November, 2008. After the show, the old friends got together to tell tall stories and swap lies for hours on end.

“He wanted to get back out here,” Mr. Burke said. “He viewed it as an untouched wilderness.”

The singer-songwriter Wyckham Porteous, who is also in the Cordova Bay Records stable, was so moved by Mr. Quarrington’s dignified handling of his death sentence that he wrote a song about him. He got to play it for his subject, gently crying while singing. The song has yet to be recorded for release.

CHURCHILL CALLS: A small, shivering crowd of 75 gathered at the Mayors Grove in Beacon Hill Park yesterday afternoon, among them former NDP premier Dan Miller and former Social Credit attorney-general Brian Smith. Supported by the local Churchill society, the annual event toasts the memory of the man who rallied his people against Nazi aggression.

Les Leyne, a newspaper columnist, played host to the gathering, held, coincidentally, on his birthday, while the author Chris Gainor once again reprised his role as the British Bulldog in felt hat, trenchcoat, and an eponymous stogie.

The celebration takes place in front of a hawthorn tree planted during Sir Winston’s visit to the city on Sept. 6, 1929.

The tradition at the event is to make a toast with an inexpensive German sparkling wine, which, thanks to Churchill’s defiance, is a libation of choice and not coercion.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bookstore capitalizes on its socialist history

Ray Viaud and Jane Bouey help keep books on the shelf and moving out the door at the People's Co-op Bookstore on Commercial Drive in Vancouver. Jon Murray photograph.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 21, 2010


Happy birthday, comrade bookstore!

Fraternal greetings to People’s Co-op Books on glorious anniversary of 65 years of irrefrangible service to workers and peasants of British Columbia!

All hail the visionaries who, in 1945, in the aftermath of the great patriotic wartime alliance between Allied forces and the Soviet Union, decided to continue fighting fascism with books instead of bullets.

They sold shares in their cooperative for $1 each. The original members counted among themselves a trapper, a welder, a machinist, a housewife, and a motorman.

Today, the shares sell for the same bargain price. Buy 10 shares, get 10 per cent off all purchases for an entire year.

The co-op has run an annual loss in almost every year of its existence, surviving on bequests and donations. The reds have been awash in red ink. No wonder they critique capitalism.

“We’re doing okay,” said Ray Viaud, who has managed the store for 25 years. “It’s tough economic times, especially in the book industry.”

People’s Co-op has endured blacklists, the Cold War, and the harassment of RCMP surveillance. It has also survived revelations of Stalin’s crimes; the crushing of dissent in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland; and, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the tearing down of the Iron Curtain, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

It claims the title of Vancouver’s oldest bookstore, an achievement all the more remarkable following yesterday’s announcement that Duthie Books will soon close its doors after 53 years. The owners of the venerable independent store blame Chapters and Amazon for being “ruthless in their drive for market share.”

The shelves of People’s Co-op were once filled with the works of Dyson Carter (“Russia’s Secret Weapon,” “We Saw Socialism”), as well as magazines with such cheery headlines as “No tooth decay in the Soviet Union.” Now, a browser is more likely to find titles in subjects (homosexuality, environmentalism) that might, in another decade, have been dismissed as petty bourgeois affectations.

In its early days, the store offered hard to find socialist and Communist literature, as well as record albums by such blacklisted American artists as Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson. When American authorities seized Mr. Robeson’s passport, which prevented him from attending a trade-union convention in Vancouver, the bookstore helped sponsor a concert. Some 40,000 gathered at the Peace Arch border crossing, listening to the great singer’s bass baritone amplified as he performed from the rear of a flatbed truck.

An early manager of the store was a rumpled satyr with a boyish nickname and a felicitous surname. Merwyn (Binky) Marks was known to carry his lunch in one pocket, the store’s receipts in the other. On a sailing expedition up Indian Arm, he fished in his pocket for a chunk of ham, attaching it to a hook which he then trailed behind the boat. At the end of the day, he reeled in the line, removing bait untouched by fish, which he then proceeded to eat.

Mr. Marks left the store soon after the crushing of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, going on to manage Duthie’s celebrated paperback cellar.

In 1968, the store became embroiled in a legal fight after the Pacific National Exhibition refused to rent a stall to the store during the annual fair. Free-speech protestors picketed the fair. They won their case, though another political party was quick to take advantage of the removal of a ban against partisan political advertising. The ruling Social Credit party sponsored a float in the fair’s parade the following year. It featured a rock combo and go-go dancers.)

Eventually, the People’s Co-op table at the fair’s Showcase B.C. Building included such items as $2.50 Lenin lapel pins and $149.95 matroshka dolls. They sold somewhat less briskly than shammies and kitchen gadgets pitched at neighbouring booths.

A big break came when the Soviets opened a pavilion at Expo 86 featuring a larger-than-life statue of Hero of the Soviet Union Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space. Though many of their customers opposed the fair, which was seen as a promotion of business and Social Credit, the co-op agreed to operate a souvenir kiosk inside the pavilion.

The space was doubled after the first week. The cash register rang and rang and rang.

“Mostly it was Americans coming up and buying stuff,” Mr. Viaud said. “They were amazed by these books they had never seen before.”

The store even unloaded 10,000 copies of a special edition of the "Communist Manifesto."

After splitting profits with the distributor, the co-op wound up with more than $90,000 in profit.

People’s Co-op has enjoyed a lifespan greater than that of Lenin and Karl Marx. In four years, it will have outlived the dystopia once celebrated as a workers’ paradise.

On Friday, the co-op is holding a fundraiser with music, literary readings and standup comedy to mark their anniversary. George Bowering, Canada’s first poet laureate, is among those who will perform at the WISE Hall in Vancouver. In recent years, the store has championed local literature, often operating book tables at readings and other events.

Readers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chain stores.

Monday, January 18, 2010

At 90, Robert Matula a forgotten warrior no more

Robert Matula was promoted to brigadier-general in the army of the Czech Republic on the occasion of his 90th birthday. Photograph by Gordon Hughes.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 18, 2020


Robert Matula's hearing is fading, as is his eyesight. He walks with a stoop, needs kidney dialysis three times a week. He endures the tribulations of living to a grand age with good humour, a friend says.

His condition has not yet forced him from his home at Chemainus, the seaside community where he is well known at the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion. His name, little known elsewhere on Vancouver Island, is also spoken with reverence in a corner of the Czech Republic.

The Czechs remember Mr. Matula as the saviour of Ostrava. In 1944, he parachuted into his occupied homeland, embarking on a campaign of sabotage with partisans. Armed only with a submachine gun and his own ferocious will, he delayed a German column advancing on the industrial city.

“He took out a panzerwagen [armoured car] filled with senior officers,” said Gordon Hughes, a friend and Royal Navy veteran. “He killed two, wounded four others. Stopped the column short.”

Mr. Matula arrived in Canada more than a half-century ago, finding work as a labourer with Canadian Pacific before working his way up to performing maintenance on diesel engines. He moved to Vancouver Island in retirement.

A man with sharp features, including dark-set eyes and a nose as pointed as an eagle's beak, it is not hard to imagine Mr. Matula as a commando.

His memory remains sharp, though these days his story is more often told by others.

He has lived in obscurity for most of his time in Chemainus. In recent years, his homeland has made a special effort to recognize a brave warrior.

Mr. Matula was born to a wounded veteran of the Great War, a conscript in the army of Austria-Hungary. The boy arrived little more than a year after Czechoslovakia's own creation from the ashes of the Hapsburg Empire.

A teenaged miner when Germany occupied the Sudetenland region, he crossed the Polish frontier to join patriotic elements of the armed forces in exile.

The Poles had the Czechs join the French Foreign Legion. After the German invasion of Poland, and the subsequent declaration of war by France and Britain, he joined a Czech infantry brigade in southern France.

Briefly taken prisoner by the Germans, he and his unit escaped to join the French army in retreat. He fled by sea to Britain, where he was recruited by British intelligence and trained in explosives, parachuting, and burgling techniques.

Issued fake papers as a lumber clerk and butcher, he had dental work done in the Czech style by an expat dentist and wore civilian clothes made by a Czech tailor before parachuting with five others into the Moravian mountains on Sept. 13, 1944.

The drop was a fiasco, as they missed their landing area. One man was killed and the radio operator captured. The survivors regrouped and eventually made contact with local partisans, as well as with Allied forces in London and in the approaching Soviet Red Army.

The mission, code-named Wolfram, harassed the Germans in a deadly campaign of sabotage.

In the final days of the war, Mr. Matula's brave attack on a German column caused temporary confusion in enemy ranks, allowing a Czech tank brigade fighting with the Soviets to capture Ostrava in what is remembered as the bloodiest battle on Czech soil.

At first seen as liberators, the Soviet forces came to be seen as occupiers. Mr. Matula fled his homeland a second time, crossing the mountain border on foot into Bavaria, part of the British zone of occupied Germany. He and his British wife immigrated to Canada a decade later.

A forgotten warrior has been recognized by the Czechs as survivors of the war dwindle in number. The deputy mayor of Ostrava presented him a medal on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Czechoslovakia. On his 89th birthday, he was presented a Czech Gold Cross.

Last month, on the day before his 90th birthday, Mr. Matula was presented with a crisp new uniform befitting his promotion to brigadier-general. A ceremony held at the Chemainus Seniors Centre was attended by Czech officials from Ostrava and Washington.

Sometimes, a hero's reward comes late in life.


The surrealist comedy troupe Firesign Theatre appeared in a live performance on Whidbey Island in Washington earlier this month.

The quartet of unapologetic Marxist-Lennonists (they once subtitled an album All Hail Marx and Lennon , with the jacket decorated with portraits of Groucho and John) won a devoted following in the 1970s with such albums as Don't Crush that Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers , and I Think We're All Bozos on this Bus .

One of the troupe has a surprising connection to B.C. Phil Proctor's daughter, Kristin, an actor, is married to Premier Gordon Campbell's son, Geoff. The Proctor and Campbell merger has produced a grandson for two doting grandfathers.

Perhaps the connection is not so unlikely if one takes into account the Social Credit roots of some Liberals.

One of Mr. Proctor's best-known Firesign voices is that of Ralph Spoilsport, a fast-talking used-car dealer whose list of extras in one of his clunkers includes “factory air-conditioned air from our fully factory-equipped air-conditioned factory!”

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Olympic glory, courtesy of Germany

Rick Amann displays Albertville Olympics banner he presented tothe elementary schol in his hometown of Austin, Man. Photograph by Daniel Pi, Black News.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 13, 2010


The thermometer was at that precise point where the distinction between Fahrenheit and Celsius becomes meaningless.

Then there was the wind chill.

Rick Amann of Vancouver had to spend some time outdoors last Friday in Brandon, Man. He grew up on a prairie farm, so he knew to prepare. He dressed and dressed and dressed some more.

“Long underwear. A complete winter jogging strip. Plus another pair of jogging pants. On top, two more layers of windbreakers. A felt jacket. I had at least five layers.”

He donned a white toque and a white track suit. He looked like the Michelin man. On his hands were a pair of familiar red mittens in which he carried the Olympic torch.

Mr. Amann, 49, is one of Canada’s least-known former Winter Olympians. He took part in the Albertville Games of 1992 and the Lillehammer Games two years later.

Back then, his hands were covered by hockey gloves. He played defence for Germany, an underrated but hard-working squad that came within a goal of delivering an upset against his Canadian homeland.

The happy circumstance of his ancestry gave him an opportunity not available to many athletes in this hockey-mad land.

He was raised in Austin, Man., population 450, a farming village just south of the Trans-Canada Highway west of Winnipeg. (His passport gives his birthplace as MacGregor, which is just down the road and the site of the local hospital.) His father was a heavy-machinery mechanic, his mother the local postmaster.

He played his first hockey outdoors on natural ice, volunteering as an ice cleaner, improving his skating as he pushed a shovel around the ice. Young Rick got a few extra precious minutes on the ice with his stick and puck.

He left home at a young age to play junior hockey in Abbotsford and New Westminster. At 6-foot-1, 190-pounds, he was a mobile defenceman with good hands, though those were not always employed in the business of putting the puck in the net. Coach Ernie (Punch) McLean was more likely to be upset by a clean sheet than by a rap sheet.

“If you were playing for New Westminster you had to have a bit of an edge,” Mr. Amann said, “or you didn’t stay with the Bruins for long.”

In his final season with the Bruins, he scored 22 goals in 55 games, an impressive total for a defenceman, especially considering he spent the equivalent of more than three complete games in the penalty box.

A teammate’s tip led to a long career in Germany, where he played professionally for EHC Freiburg and Duesseldorfer EG, the latter a dynasty that recorded four German titles during Mr. Amann’s stint on the blueline.

Teased by a teammate that he did not even know the German national anthem, Mr. Amman had the lyrics printed out. He carried the sheet in his wallet for a dozen years, time during which he also made a point of learning the language and integrating as much as possible.

His Olympic career includes two assists in 16 games. The highlight was a quarterfinal match against Canada on Feb. 18, 1992. The Germans proved to be no patsies, holding the favoured Canadians to a 3-3 draw during regulation.

“(Eric) Lindros came over the blue line, bumped into me and fell down,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘Geez, he fell over easy.’ Maybe he was off-balance, or caught an edge.”

As the game went into overtime, German television delayed a popular news broadcast. Some friends told him they pulled over to the side of the Autobahn to listen to the end of the game on the radio.

Canada ended up winning the shootout 3-2 to advance, eventually winning a silver medal.

With the Winter Olympics returning to Canada, Mr. Amann applied to be a torchbearer as close to his hometown as possible. He carried the torch for 300 metres along 18th Street in Brandon, where he was met at the passing point by his parents, his sister, a nephew and his family, as well as lots of cousins.

The day before, he made a pilgrimage to Austin, home of the Manitoba Agricultural Museum, which boasts Canada’s largest collection of vintage farm machinery. At an assembly at his old elementary school, he teared up as he told the pupils of the advantages he gained by having grown up in a rural community where neighbours help one another.

A financial partner at CN Rail, he will be busy during the upcoming Olympics as co-host of the German hockey team during next month’s Olympics. He is dedicated to ensuring the athletes and their family have a tremendous time in Vancouver. Because his own family felt gouged by hoteliers and others when they went to watch him in Europe, he has helped find about a dozen homes in his Edgemont neighbourhood of North Vancouver where relatives will be able to stay during the Games.

Should any of the players or family visit the Amann household, they will be able to see on the wall a tattered sheet with the lyrics of the German national anthem, a reminder of an unlikely journey for a smalltown boy from rural Manitoba.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A healer paints pictures of a painful time

Dr. Henry Shimizu has painted 27 scenes from his days as a youth in an internment camp at New Denver, B.C. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 11, 2010


Henry Shimizu has good, steady hands.

At 81, he paints marvelous canvasses. In recent years, he completed a striking series from memories of a youth spent in a Kootenay valley.

Those 27 images have been exhibited throughout the province and will be included in a show in Toronto in March, offering a bittersweet account of a shameful chapter in this province’s history.

For most of his working life, his hands performed miracles in Alberta, closing cleft palates, repairing burnt flesh, even reattaching severed limbs.

Long before training as a plastic surgeon, he began his working life by folding napkins at the family restaurant in Prince Rupert. His father, Shotaro, known as Tom, had come to this continent from Japan in 1905 to work on the railway. He arrived two years later at Prince Rupert, an isolated port city destined for greatness as the western terminus of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway.

The boom never happened — the city’s founder, a railway executive, went down with the Titanic — but Tom Shimizu prospered. He formed a partnership with George Nishikaze, a former houseboy from Victoria with a reputation as a Western-style cook. The two men owned and operated the 30-room New Dominion Hotel and restaurant. The Tom and Kimiko Shimizu and their five children lived in the hotel.

The business survived the Depression, thanks to the thrift of employing but not paying family members.

The outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 brought shipbuilding contracts to Prince Rupert. Men flooded in to construct frigates and corvettes. The cook prepared 50 lunches before dawn, sending them off with the men after they finished a hearty breakfast.

The two busy years brought a newfound confidence which evaporated with the terrible news delivered by radio in December, 1941. Imperial Japan had attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.

“My parents knew right away there was going to be problems for them,” Dr. Shimizu said.

His father tried to sell the hotel immediately, but was unsuccessful. In a few weeks, the city was inflamed, neighbours turning on their peaceable fellow residents. The Rotary Club, the Ladies Orange Benevolent Society, and the local daily newspaper demanded the Japanese-Canadians in their midst be rounded up and interned. In March, 130 residents were ordered to leave the city by train.

“I remembered being registered and getting a blue card on which I was identified as a Canadian-born enemy alien,” he said. “But how can you be both Canadian-born and an alien?”

Henry, then aged 13, a Grade 7 student at Booth Memorial High, remembers a handful of classmates at the train station to see him off. “Where are you going?” one girl asked. “I don’t know,” he replied. He would never see any of them again.

After several months at Hastings Park in Vancouver, he and his mother and siblings joined their father and his partner at a camp at New Denver, where the men had constructed buildings for their own internment.

The Shimizus and the Nishikazes shared a three-room shiplap house, a dozen people sharing a 16-by-28-foot cabin.

Years later, when he looked back on four years spent in the camp, he would recall games of hockey in winter and baseball in summer, of Buddhist festivals interrupting long days of work and study, of Japanese-Canadian soldiers visiting their families in the camp before going to Europe to fight the Nazis.

The family hotel with its grand patriotic name had been seized by the Custodian of Enemy Property and sold without their permission to cover the cost of maintaining the family in the camp. At war’s end, they were still barred from returning to the coast.

In 1946, the Catholic nuns who serviced the camp found his parents work in the kitchen at Misericordia Hospital in Edmonton. Young Henry and his sister got shifts as elevator operators on the weekend. Three years later, the federal government removed all restrictions on Japanese-Canadians, allowing them for the first time to vote and to join certain professional occupations. Graduating from medical school in 1954, Dr. Shimizu became one of the first Japanese-Canadian doctors in the land.

After marrying Joan Miller, a nursing graduate, he did a residency in plastic surgery in Pittsburgh, where the students were encouraged to enroll in classes in life drawing.

On his return to Edmonton, he co-founded the first burn treatment centre in Western Canada.

In 1978, his hospital got a frantic call from a doctor in rural Rimbey, where a three-year-old accident victim needed immediate surgery. Her father rushed her to the capital.

In the chaos of pre-operation preparations, Dr. Shimizu found the girl alone on a stretcher in an emergency ward cubicle.

“What happened?” he asked her.

She replied in a small but steady voice. “Oh, my daddy cut my arm off.”

The girl had been napping in a field when her father ran over her with a hay mower.

“Where is it?” the doctor asked.

She pointed with her right hand to a plastic bucket that held the severed limb, wrapped in plastic to protect the skin from ice water.

“Just like it was cut with a knife,” the doctor would note.

At midnight, slightly more than nine hours after the accident, a surgical team including Drs. Shimizu and Gary Lobay completed the operation.

The girl regained some use of the arm and the operation marked the first successful limb replantation on the continent.

“She’s now a farmer’s wife in the same area,” Dr. Shimizu said.

Looking back, he understands the fears that led to his family being evicted from their hotel, though he is less forgiving for the continued discrimination at war’s end.

His own memories are bittersweet, for the unfairness of the act was at least matched by the determination of the younger evacuees to be successful Canadians.

Named to the Order of Canada seven years ago, the honour was particularly satisfying for someone who, on the basis of ethnic heritage, had once been regarded as less than a full citizen in the land of his birth.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

When the world comes to visit

By Tom Hawthorn
Boulevard Magazine
January/February, 2010

Silken Laumann stood on the Olympic podium, a moment the athlete had long anticipated. A bouquet in her hands, she nodded as an official draped a medal around her neck.

Spectators who had cheered so exuberantly moments before stood silently for a national anthem.

The moment matched what she had imagined, only instead of the opening notes of O Canada she was hearing the unfamiliar sounds of a paean to Belarussian greatness. Laumann had just completed her fourth and final Olympic Games on the placid waters of Lake Lanier, a manmade body of water and the dusty state of Georgia’s only lake of any kind. Laumann earned a silver in the single sculls, a disappointing result for a rower so determined to get a gold after having won earlier two bronzes.

“I got better,” she said after the race, fingering the medal around her neck. “And it’s pretty.”

She sounded like a gift-opener being polite on Christmas morning.

Laumann’s Olympic moment in 1996 ached of exhaustion and disappointment, though she recovered well enough to establish herself as a motivational speaker and children’s advocate on her return to Victoria. For her, the Olympics opened a door for an athlete to become a prominent citizen.

After years of planning and building, Vancouver and Whistler are about to play host to the Games of the XXI Winter Olympiad. The 17 days of blanket television coverage (followed by another 10 of the Paralympics) will be hard to avoid. Many are ambivalent about the Games. The cost is obscene. The athletes too often seem little more than vehicles for the pushing of product — a soft drink, a fast-food joint, the spectacular scenery.

The list of what’s wrong with the Olympics is a long one: the misplaced spending; the in-your-face nationalism; the nudge-nudge, wink-wink of such television-friendly eye-candy as beach volleyball; the piggybacking of politicians on athletes’ success. For us in British Columbia, the decision has already been made and the money allocated. The Games are here. Those who oppose them will get another chance in a few years to cast an electoral verdict on those responsible for the decision. Meanwhile, I’d like to encourage all to embrace the event, because, for all its faults, the Olympics brings together the peoples of the world.

Each of us can discover an Olympic moment. We can have one as a spectator, sharing an athletic moment of triumph, or defeat. Or we can have one as residents of this land, seeing it afresh as we share our corner with visitors from around the globe.

These will be my third Games. As a teenager in Montreal in 1976, I delivered the Gazette in the morning before going to class, eagerly adding a coveted Montreal Star delivery route for late afternoons. Too soon I learned why the route had been abandoned. The Olympic papers were thick, a carrier’s payment the same no matter how heavy the bundle.

The extra money came in handy for the purchase of tickets to an Olympic field hockey game at Molson Stadium and a soccer match at the Olympic Stadium, properly nicknamed the Big Owe. Near the end of the games, I tried to buy a ticket to the women’s volleyball finals at the Forum. Shut out at the box office, a fellow fan sold me a ticket for standing room at face value. It meant hours of not moving from my spot above the red seats, but I caught four thrilling matches, including the incomparable Japanese team, whose athletes flung themselves onto the unforgiving floor with abandon. I’d never even seen a Cuban before, let alone a Russian.

One of my lingering memories is of Canadian captain Betty Baxter valiantly, if unsuccessfully, throwing her body after a ball in a losing effort against the Peruvians. Many years later, Baxter ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Parliament from Vancouver.

Nine years ago, Simon Whitfield won the first ever Olympic gold medal in triathlon, inspiring many children in Victoria to take up a sport demanding excellence in swimming, running and cycling. Whitfield remains a world-class athlete and can be spotted jogging along the Dallas Road waterfront while pushing a stroller.

A few years back, I visited an aged Chuck Chapman at his home in the Oaklands neighbourhood. He was stooped by old age, looking as though forever bent over to dribble a basketball, the sport at which he had won a silver medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He kept the medal in a tattered box in the drawer of a side table in his living room, close at hand, but not on display, a gesture as modest as the man himself.

As it turned out, my personal Olympic moment while covering the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 happened not at Lake Lanier, nor at a gymnasium, nor at a stadium.

A Canadian contingent of print reporters was housed in new student dormitories on the campus of Clark University just a short jaunt from the family-owned businesses lining Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. One night, lured by the aroma of smoking meat, I walked through a heavily-barred door into what a painted window declared to be Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven. It was smokey inside. Dark, too. A counter with stools faced the ovens, whose flames made the diner feel more stygian than celestial. A few rickety tables lined the side wall. At the rear, a large poster of the man after whom the street was named loomed over a lone booth. The only typography on the poster: “1929-1968.” The corners were tattered.

I asked the owner why the poster was on the wall over the booth.

Sometimes, the dumbest questions elicit the best answers.

After preaching, the minister made it is habit to come to Aleck’s, just another “hungry brother” seeking a plateful of messy but delicious ribs. That booth at the back was Dr. King’s booth. They kept it after renovations. I had a seat, imagining a saintly martyr as an ordinary man.

Maybe one of our visitors will find their moment walking the landscape that inspired Alice Munro and Carol Shields, or will dedicate themselves to architecture after seeing a Samuel MacLure mansion, or will become a more dedicated horticulturist after strolling through Butchart Gardens.

It’s not just about the spectacle when the world comes to visit.

Ladies' night in Canada

The Vancouver Amazons enjoy a light-hearted practice on the outdoor rink at Banff, Alta. Credit: Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, V263-3862. Photo: Byron Harmon. Below, author Wayne Norton has researched the mostly forgotten history of early women hockey players in British Columbia.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 7, 2010


They called themselves Vamps and Kewpies and Amazons.

In the early days, they wore long skirts as befitted Victorian ladies. Soon, they were donning stylish outfits of their own design, complete with navy collars and short skirts with trim, not to mention nickel-plated ice skates.

In time, they skated freely in bloomers, their team identity proudly presented in colourful wool sweaters.

Long before Hayley Wickenheiser first laced a skate, decades before the inauguration of the Winter Olympics, a handful of daring women in British Columbia defied convention by taking to the ice to play hockey.

They endured the teasing and taunting of male spectators, read sneering accounts of their matches in the daily newspapers. In time, the won a begrudging respect for the ferocity of their play.

For several years, women’s teams competed in a tournament during an annual winter carnival at Banff, Alta. The winner took home the Alpine Cup as the champion women’s hockey team of Western Canada.

Wayne Norton, a Victoria author, has written “Women on Ice” after stumbling across the fascinating and little-known story of women hockey players.

A coal miner’s son and a teacher by training, he was researching the history of Fernie when he came across a striking photo of a women’s team. Not much of a sports fan, he was intrigued by the notion of pioneering athletes, as well as by the unlikely symbol worn on the front of their sweaters.

He embarked on a long research project to uncover the forgotten tale.

He spent untold hours pouring over microfilm of old newspapers, piecing together fragmentary accounts.

In 1897, a women’s team formed in Sandon, a mining boom town in the Kootenays known as the Monte Carlo of North America and the Silver City in the Clouds. This was followed by reports of rival teams in Moyie, Kaslo, Nelson, Slocan, Phoenix, Silverton, New Denver and Grand Forks. By 1901, Rossland boasted two teams in the Stars and the Crescents.

“I imagine the style of play was quite gentle,” Mr. Norton said. “Tentative, I suppose.

“You have to remember what they were wearing — long skirts and heavy sweaters.”

The arrival in Nelson of Joseph Patrick from Montreal would be the most important development in the history of hockey in the province. While the elder Patrick opened a lumber company, his sons came west to play hockey for the city team. Frank and Lester Patrick would both enjoy long careers, earning induction in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Mr. Norton reports their three sisters also played hockey in Nelson, their exploits much less known than those of their famous brothers.

The Patrick brothers eventually moved to the coast, opening grand arenas with artificial ice in Vancouver and Victoria. They signed top-notch male players for their new professional Pacific Coast Hockey Association. Soon, amateur women played games between periods of men’s games. Their coach, Pete Muldoon, gave a demonstration of skating on stilts.

The women’s game held some promise as a box-office attraction, as they began to play a grittier style.

A group of young, unmarried women who had attended high school in the West End formed the Vancouver Amazons. They counted among themselves a future teacher, a stenographer, a registered nurse, a bank clerk, and two office workers. Norah and Phebe Senkler were sisters from a prominent family, as their father was a respected barrister and their mother the daughter of a former lieutenant-governor.

In Victoria, the women called themselves the Kewpies. In Seattle, they were the Vamps, though a newspaper in a rival city preferred to describe them as the Sweeties.

The Vancouver newspapers improved the tone of their coverage, noting the Amazons practiced “with the grim earnestness of a modern Joan of Arc.” Hockey fans were encouraged to support “Vancouver’s dazzling aggregation of lady puck-chasers.”

Sometimes, the game’s star received a box of Purdy’s chocolates.

The team’s main attraction was Kathleen Carson, said to possess a shot as hard as a man’s. She eventually married team manager Guy Patrick, another of the brothers.

The Amazons travelled to the Banff tournament for the first time in 1921, with Frank Patrick’s wife, Catherine, as chaperone. The Calgary Regents won that year, the Amazons triumphed the next, while the Fernie Swastikas claimed the title in 1923.

The Swastikas wore red sweaters with a large crooked cross on the chest, having adopted as their club name the ancient symbol of good fortune, which was popularly used in the pre-Nazi era in the same fashion as the shamrock.

More than 1,000 spectators attended home games in the Rocky Mountain community.

A stalwart on defence for the Swastikas was the mayor’s daughter. Miss Dorothy Henderson, as she was inevitably described, died unexpectedly after a brief illness a year after her team’s triumph at Banff.

Women’s hockey petered out during the Depression and disappeared during the war, not to be revived for decades.

The hockey history, published by Ronsdale Press, is Mr. Norton’s eighth book. By coincidence, he did his teaching practicum at King George High in Vancouver’s West End, the very school he would later discover had been attended by the young woman who formed the Amazons.

The Fernie Swastikas (c. 1922) wore red sweaters with a crooked cross in white, a symbol of good luck until perverted by the Nazis. Credit: Fernie and District Historical Society, no. 972.

The Mystery of the Missing Cup

There's one final, unsolved mystery in Wayne Norton's pursuit of women's hockey lore.

The Alpine Club of Canada donated a silver trophy to the sport - tall and narrow, like a champagne flute, with matching handles at the top. Women did ferocious battle for the prize. Today, the Alpine Cup is lost.

"I would love to find it," Mr. Norton says.

He believes the trophy likely wound up with a player in either Calgary or Red Deer. Here's hoping some Alberta household is puzzled by the provenance of a practical household item - perhaps in use as a vase - that has behind it a rich story.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Keeping the music alive

Michael Asch, a semi-retired anthropology professor, promotes his father's legacy with a radio program based on more than 2,000 Folkways records. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 4, 2010


Michael Asch is the grandson of the late Sholem Asch, a distinguished novelist and playwright who for a time was the best known Yiddish writer on the planet.

He is the son of the late Moses Asch, the founder of Folkways Records, who recorded Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

At 66, Mr. Asch betrays a hint of his Greenwich Village upbringing in his speech even decades after leaving Manhattan. He is an accomplished anthropologist who will be teaching a class on indigenous rights at the University of Victoria this session.

With stylish eyeglasses and a neat trim of white beard, the amiable Mr. Asch looks much the semi-retired academic. His own extensive credits include a decade with the Dene, a time during which he once interviewed Julian Yendo, a last living negotiator of Treaty 11.

Mr. Asch is writing a book about treaty relations between Canada and First Nations, a work that will examine mindsets and assumptions. He has written several other books, also compiling the recordings and writing liner notes to “An Anthology of North American Indian and Eskimo Music.” The album was released in 1973 on his father’s legendary label.

Folkways never had a hit record, never paid much in royalties, never made a mogul of the founder.

It was Moe Asch’s promise in life and wish before death that all he recorded remain in print in perpetuity. He told his artists he would always make their music available to an audience, no matter how small.

Shortly after Moe’s death in 1986, Michael Asch completed negotiations with the Smithsonian, which purchased the Folkways catalogue, earning the family a modest grubstake while fulfilling a father’s obligation.

To this day, you can buy any and every recording Moe Asch ever released.

As well, the Smithsonian Folkways label continues to issue several new works every year.

“The catalogue is so broad,” Michael Asch, a little smile on his face an acknowledgement of his understatement.

On average, Moe Asch released a record each week since founding the label in 1948. He named his long-suffering secretary the principal, a dodge designed to confuse bill collectors, not to mention Red-baiting politicians eager to confuse Mr. Asch’s hatred of racism for a love of communism.

He left 2,168 albums — recordings by Pete Seeger, Big Bill Broonzy, and Champion Jack Dupree; by Memphis Slim and Mississippi John Hurt; works of folk, blues, jazz, gospel, and ragtime; collections of children’s songs and anthologies of picket-line anthems for striking workers; readings by the poet Langston Hughes and by the acid evangelist Timothy Leary.

He gathered folk music and tribal chants from around the globe, including Quebec fiddle tunes and 1953’s “Folk Songs of Newfoundland.” He was ahead of his time in creating records of environmental ambience, some of which were released in 1958 as “Sounds of North American Frogs.”

Michael Asch does what he can to keep Moe’s legacy in the public mind. He chairs a Smithsonian advisory board dedicated to continuing his father’s ideals. Last year, he hosted 26 radio programs based on his father’s work. In the coming weeks, he will prepare another 13 episodes for the CKUA radio network in Edmonton.

It reflects his father’s liberal taste and extensive catalogue that a son can dedicate an entire show to Folkways songs about the days of the week (“Stormy Monday,” “Mardis Gras Song,” “Wednesday Night Waltz,” “The Ballad of Bloody Thursday”), and another to works about Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian-born labourers and anarchists whose legal defence was a cause celebre before their execution in 1927.

Moe Asch was a driven and difficult man inevitably described as crusty even by favourable biographers. His only son attended the Little Red School House in Greenwich Village, where his classmates included Robert De Niro, the future actor, and Angela Davis, the future academic and revolutionary Communist. As a teenager, Michael befriended a girl named Jane, whose father was a playwright. When invited to her home, his evening meal was prepared by Arthur Miller’s second wife, the actress Marilyn Monroe.

His music teachers were Charity Bailey, who launched a weekly television program in New York in 1954, and the quirky Earl Robinson, who had written film scores in Hollywood before being blacklisted during the McCarthy era. (Mr. Robinson composed music for the song “Joe Hill,” the martyred labour leader. He also co-wrote “Black and White,” a hit for Three Dog Night, likely the only song about the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court desegregation ruling, Brown vs. the Board of Education, to have hit the Billboard Hot 100.) Both teachers recorded with Folkways.

Mr. Asch first came to Canada to attend the Mariposa folk festival in 1963. He busked with a guitar on the streets of Yorkville during Toronto’s folk revival of the mid-1960s.

He decided to become an anthropologist after studying under Sol Tax at the University of Chicago. “Because of my background,” he said, “I understood that people don’t assimilate.” He spent time with the Cherokee in Oklahoma before returning to New York for graduate school, a far more palatable option than being drafted to fight an unjust war in Vietnam.

He taught at the University of Alberta in Edmonton before moving to Victoria 12 years ago, continuing his father’s mission, giving voice to anonymous office worker and tribal elder alike, taping the clacking of a manual typewriter (“The Sounds of the Office,” 1964), and a canoe paddle song (“Nootka Indian Music of the Pacifis North West Coast,” 1974).

The album of bullfrog mating calls was reissued on its 40th anniversary. The 92 tracks include such esoterica as the “Mating Trill of the Southern Toad (Bufo Terrestris).” The field recordings were made by Charles Bogert and produced by Moe Asch.

Best of all, the album credits “various artists.”

Seventeen of Michael Asch's radio programs are available to listen as a podcast. Click here and follow instructions.