Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Jim Green, organizer (1943-2012)

Jim Green was widely considered the best mayor Vancouver never had. John Lehmann photograph for the Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 28, 2012

Jim Green housed the homeless, found money for the indigent, created jobs for the unemployed.

A burly, brooding presence in Canada’s poorest neighbourhood, he indisputably made life better for many of those living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Mr. Green, who died at his home earlier today, aged 68, became known as the best mayor Vancouver never had, though he ran twice for the office.

He knew poverty as a child and saw no nobility in its depredations. Nor did he see hunger and want as God’s will. Poverty existed because man created it, and if man created it man could change it. He made that his life’s work.

A prominent figure in the city’s history for more than three decades, he went from taking part in noisy sit-ins at the offices of politicians to working hand-in-hand with developers in rehabilitating dilapidated hotels and constructing shiny condominium towers.

Such alliances, as well as his willingness to play politics with his elbows up, created enemies both on his right and left.

“I’d rather house one person than please a thousand critics,” he said in an interview just five days before his death.

The landscape of the Downtown Eastside is dotted with buildings — old and new — in which Mr. Green had a hand in preserving, or constructing. The list is lengthy — Tellier Towers, Pandera Place, and Four Sisters Co-op, as well as buildings named after beloved neighbourhood figures, such as the Lore Krill Co-op, Bruce Eriksen Place, and Solheim Place. The latter was named for Olaf Solheim, an 84-year-old retired logger who died soon after he was evicted from his room at the Patricia Hotel, which was one of many single-room occupancy hotels in the area that forced out long-time residents in hopes of cashing in on tourists attending Expo 86.

Those buildings offer safe, secure housing, while also presenting to the street attractive facades, helping to make the streetscape aesthetically pleasing for all passersby.

Mr. Green’s crowning achievement was his role in the development of the site of the former Woodward’s department store, which is revitalizing an historic area. The development, a mix of market and social housing, remains controversial in some circles, as it is feared it will lead to further gentrification and displacement of the poor.

Mr. Green played a leading role in many of the initiatives that made life better in the Downtown Eastside. When a new hockey arena was being built, a job-training program called BladeRunners was founded. It continues to find construction work for inner-city youth.

As well, Mr. Green helped bring a dental clinic and a community bank to his beleaguered neighbourhood. (Dental work made it possible for some to find jobs in the hospitality industry. Before the bank opened, welfare recipients were targets for muggings, as they had no safe place to secure their money.) A program called Humanities 101 gave residents access to university courses in the arts and social sciences.

A husky physique combined with an ease in earthy expressions — he had, after all, once worked as a longshoreman — gave Mr. Green a commanding presence, which was amplified by his penchant for wearing a dark trench coat and black fedora. He had a doughy face that became jowly in middle age and it seemed as though a scowl rested more comfortably on his visage than any other expression. Critics took him for a bully, but the underdogs who benefited from his work saw him as their fearless champion. To walk the streets of the Downtown Eastside with him, as did generations of reporters, was to witness the genuine affection with which he was regarded. As a conversational companion, he was engaging, funny, profane, quick-witted and learned.

He could argue left-wing politics with denizens of skid-row pubs, while also debating the artistic merits of an overture as an habitué of the opera, a passion he found more time to indulge late in life. He also had an eye for original works of art.

Born into a military family in Birmingham, Ala., in 1943, James Thomas Green spent an unhappy childhood in the rural South. His father hailed from Tennessee coal country, while his mother was the daughter of Oklahoma sharecroppers. His upbringing was more Southern Gothic than Norman Rockwell, as his father was a drinker and violent.

“You didn’t have a relationship with a guy like that,” he once said of the man whose name he carried. “You just stayed out of his way the best you could.”

He learned to drive at age 14 so as to make deliveries for his mother’s floral shop, which she opened in a converted garage to support Jim and his younger brother, Paul.

“We had no income from my dad,” Mr. Green once told me, “because he drank it all.”

By 17, he was driving an ambulance in Sumter, S.C. “The funeral homes owned the ambulances,” he said. “The ambulance service was free. The idea was that out of good PR, you’d get the body, eventually.”

It was his job to race to accident scenes, as 17 competing firms also sought business from highway carnage.

One of his assignments as a teenager involved transporting a young girl’s body to her family in New England in winter. He needed a jackhammer to dig a grave in the frozen Massachusetts ground.

In time, he moved into the rear of the funeral parlour, a respite from what he described as the craziness of life at home.

He played varsity football at his segregated high school, moving from guard, a position that gets hit by others, to a linebacker, one who gets to do the hitting. He graduated, believing himself the first in his family to do so, moving on to university, where he registered black voters at a time and place where doing so could cost you your life. Later, he organized migrant workers for the farmworker’s union in Colorado.

When his draft board told him he was to lose his student deferment, he headed north to Montana, crossing the border near Cardston, Alta. He was disgusted by the Vietnam War and sick of bigotry in his homeland. He became a Canadian citizen five years later in 1973.

The decision to avoid the draft led to an estrangement with his younger brother, who served tours of duty in Vietnam before returning home a decorated lieutenant in the U.S. Army Rangers, an elite unit. The brothers reconciled at the funeral for their mother.

An anthropologist, Mr. Green studied at the Sorbonne in France (he was thwarted in his ambition to write a master’s thesis on Babar the Elephant as a symbol of neocolonialism) before settling in Vancouver. He worked as a cabbie and on the docks, before being hired as a community organizer by the Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA) in 1980.

Years earlier, those residents, many of them retired loggers and fishermen, as well as the businesses in Chinatown and those living in neighbouring Strathcona managed to halt the city’s ambitious plans to tear down single-family houses in favour of urban renewal and a network of highways.

“We were beginning to build an American freeway city,” Mr. Green said recently. “Doomsday was knocking on the door.”

He saw his advocacy work at DERA as continuing that struggle. The dimly-lit corridor outside DERA’s office was often filled with supplicants — elderly women of Chinese ancestry, lumberjacks with bad backs, single mothers with crying children — who needed help with welfare, or a landlord, or immigration.

Mr. Green became a familiar figure in the news as an irritant at City Hall and to the Social Credit government in Victoria, where his criticisms of Expo 86 in particular generated outrage. He was forcing people to look at a neighbourhood too long and too easily ignored.

His history of the Canadian Seaman's Union,  "Against the Tide," was published in 1986.

He lost a campaign for mayor in 1990 against Gordon Campbell. Six years later, he unsuccessfully challenged Mr. Campbell for a seat in the provincial legislature. Elected to city council in 2002, Mr. Green made a second run for the mayoralty in 2005, losing to Sam Sullivan by a margin less than that gained by an unknown candidate named James Green, a mysterious figure whose motive for campaigning remains unknown to this day.

In the end, Jim Green showed greater skill and enjoyed greater success negotiating with developers, politicians and residents than he ever did as a campaigner for public office.

Two weeks ago, his family announced that the lung cancer with which he had struggled earlier had returned. The news generated an outpouring of praise for Mr. Green, who made his final public appearance at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre on Sunday. He was presented the Freedom of the City by Mayor Gregor Robertson, as well as a lifetime free-parking pass, about which he immediately asked, “Is it transferable?”

Mr. Green died Tuesday morning at his home, a rented unit in the Woodward development that afforded a spectacular view of the city he loved.

At 88, Victoria's Blue Bridge begins to come down

Workers complete the wood decking of a bridge in Victoria in 1924. For 88 years, the Johnson Street Bridge, popularly known as the Blue Bridge for the colour of the paint used to match the oxidation of the structure, has spanned a narrowing of the Inner Harbour in Victoria. The bridge was designed by the same man responsible for the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 27, 2011


The barge Arctic Tuk was anchored in the still waters of the Inner Harbour with one end tucked beneath a bridge whose days are numbered.

The barge held a Manitowoc 4600 Series III, which is the formal designation for what is a super-duper, heavy-duty crane from what looks like the world’s biggest Meccano set.

On the bridge deck, men in hard hats wearing reflective vests and special breathing apparatus, their eyesight protected by shields, completed the severing of a venerable bridge from its terrestrial mooring.

The Johnson Street Bridge, better known as the Blue Bridge, a longtime city landmark, designed by the same man responsible for the Golden Gate Bridge, is to be replaced.

First, though, a structure that has safely transported generations across the water needs to be removed. On Friday, crowds gathered in a downpour to witness the first stage of demolition, the removal of a parallel railroad train deck.

For some, it was a happy day in which to herald the future of the city. For others, it was a time to bid adieu to an old friend, a sad moment in which an historic landmark was discarded like a pair of worn-out shoes.

Ross Crockford, who organized a spirited but ultimately failed campaign to preserve the bridge, looked crestfallen.

“Not a happy day,” he said. “Not a day to celebrate.”

Mr. Crockford and others urged the old bridge be refurbished instead of replaced. They gained enough signatures on a petition to force the city to hold a referendum, only to end up losing at the ballot box.

“As soon as I heard the referendum results, I knew this day would come,” Mr. Crockford said.

The 88-year-old bridge was painted blue some years ago, a colour choice made to match the oxides of the corroding structure.

The Blue Bridge has inspired the naming of a local repertory theatre, a batch of India pale ale, an anthology of memoirs (“Beyond the Blue Bridge”), as well as a song by The Bills titled, “Old Blue Bridge.” It is a bluegrass number, of course. “The old bridge is coming down,” the Bills sing in the tune’s opening line, recorded seven years ago.

The bridge enjoyed cameos in several Hollywood films, as well as a more prominent role in the 1997 action comedy Excess Baggage, starring Alicia Silverstone, Benicio Del Toro and Christopher Walken.

The steel bridge depended on counterweights to lift either deck for passing vessels. The bascule (from the French for “seesaw”) design had been patented by Joseph Baermann Strauss, a Cincinnati-born engineer whose university thesis described the construction of a railroad bridge across the Bering Strait.

When lifted, the road and rail bridge spans seemed to imitate the beak of a traditional Kwakiutl mask.

(For the past several months, the rail portion has been left in the lifted position. Some thought it looked as though the city of Victoria was giving a blue finger to the residents of Esquimalt.)

The removal of the bridge deck on the weekend also severed a rail link to downtown Victoria that had existed since 1888, when the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway was constructed as part of the fulfillment of a promise when the colony of British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871.

The replacement bridge, which is to be built slightly to the north and expected to be completed by 2016, does not include a rail component.

The old railway deck is to be barged to the Ralmax yard further along the harbour. Some of it is to be retained for sculptural pieces, while most of it will be dismantled and barged to the Lower Mainland, where it will be melted down.

A local radio station joked the Blue Bridge ought to be recycled in blue boxes.

As the rain fell, 26 students from James Bay community school arrived for a real-life lesson. They walked two wet kilometres from their schoolhouse to see a simple machine in action.

The Grace 5 class was led by vice-principal Scott Clazie, who leaned in to explain the science of levers and cranes.

“Public safety announcement,” Mr. Clazie bellowed in his loudest voice. “Do not put your fingers under the bridge.”

The teacher grinned broadly. One of his pupils rolled her eyes.

As an entertainment, the dismantling of a bridge is more exciting in imagination than it is in practice.

Watching part of the famous Blue Bridge being removed turned out to be as exciting as watching blue paint dry.

CBC Radio's On the Island aired a terrific documentary on the Blue Bridge and its lore. You can hear it here.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The buy-in, the switch and the wardrobe

The self-taught photographer Hana Pesut has launched a compelling project called Switcheroo, in which couples trade their clothes for before and after pictures. Above: Leila and Azim. Below: Jillian and Andrew.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 24, 2012

Jasmine wore sandals, a silky white T-shirt over black leggings, and a cropped denim jacket. Erik wore marigold sneakers, grey sweatpants, and a baggy black T-shirt. His long hair was tucked into a black-and-gold toque, an anomaly on a warm, sunny day.

The amateur models dressed in their own clothes, an everyday wardrobe for life on the West Coast.

They posed at Prospect Point in Stanley Park with the North Shore mountains as a backdrop. Hana Pesut, a self-taught photographer, captured their image with her trusty Hasselblad.

As the shoot progressed, a bus pulled up, tourists armed with their own cameras snapping the couple, as well as the scenic backdrop.

Then, the models began to undress.

Erik let his hair down, pulled his T-shirt off, unlaced his sneakers, dropped the sweatpants.

Jasmine disrobed as discreetly as was possible under the unblinking eye of a busload of camera-toting tourists.

She handed him her clothes. He handed her his.

Erik looked a bit Fabio with his hair blowing in the breeze. Jasmine looked like a 12-year-old boy.

They were photographed by Ms. Pesut as part of a project she calls Switcheroo. She takes before-and-after images of couples she asks to cross-dress in public places around Vancouver.

“It’s a nice way to take a portrait and to see the way couples interact with one another,” she said. “To see how much fun it is for them to see each other in each other’s clothes.”

The images, posted on her Sincerely Hana website, are causing an online rumble, as the images can be goofy, startling, and hilarious.

In most cases, the women pull it off.

In some cases, the men look ridiculous.

Sometimes, you hardly notice a difference.

“A couple of guys have not liked it. They act like their girlfriend tricked them into doing it,” the photographer said. “Others are good sports. They know they look funny. It’s all just for fun.”

One can make grand pronouncements about gender and identity from the images, but the photographer’s intent is not to make any specific statement at all.

“I like letting people interpret it in their own way,” she said.

One of the more intriguing critiques has come from a site dedicated to male cross-dressers. They expressed dissatisfaction with the wardrobe choices of her models.

Her couples mix and match skirts and jeans, summer dresses and trench coats, trucker caps and straw hats, camouflage jackets and pea coats, pendants and bow ties, flip flops and assault boots.

The idea first came to her while on a camping trip with two friends. One was wearing tie-dyed clothes with sequins, while the other was wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt. “They thought it would be funny if they switched outfits,” she said.

“Right after that I started obsessing with it. I would see people walking together and I began to think what they would look like in each other’s clothes.”

For Switcheroo, Ms. Pesut shoots film, using natural light in a natural setting, often near a couple’s residence to facilitate a private wardrobe switch,

The 30-year-old photographer works as a deejay and handles social media for a company in the entertainment business. She grew up in Whistler, playing point guard for her high school and college basketball teams.

She learned the sport from her father, a man she knew as Steve Tanaka. A decade ago, he was arrested in Vancouver after 30 years as a fugitive following a conviction in Illinois for cocaine trafficking. He skipped bond, fleeing to Europe before eventually landing in Canada, where he took his mother’s maiden name as his own. Steve Iwami has since completed his sentence and now lives in the Seattle area.

“I went quickly from being dependent on my dad to helping him out and taking care of him,” she said.

The secret was a great burden on him, she said.

“I’m happy for my dad that he doesn’t have to worry about that anymore. He can be more honest and open with me now.”

For the first 20 years of her life, her father toyed with identity and disguise, the very elements that make Switcheroo so compelling a project.

Monday, February 20, 2012

At Westminster Dog Show, a Havanese that has it all

Reo, who lives in Cobble Hill, outside Victoria, took the best-of-breed prize for Havanese at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club dog show. Chad Hipolito photographs for the Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 20, 2012


The princess strode with her tiny head held high, her shiny coat swaying above the carpet like a veil of chiffon.

Spectators clapped and whooped, though she ignored the ovation, instead fixing brown eyes on her companion, 15-year-old Emily Dorma, a Grade 10 student from Vancouver Island.

It was show time for toy dogs on the green carpet inside Ring 7 at Madison Square Garden in New York. The Westminster Kennel Club was conducting its 136th annual dog show, which it describes as a combination Super Bowl and Academy Awards for “canine athletes.”

A six-year-old female Havanese, named Mistytrails Double Stuf’D Oreo, or Reo for short, was presented by the high schooler. The dog had travelled from Cobble Hill to Manhattan, where she shared a bed in a room in the New Yorker Hotel. The art deco wonder which made available for four-legged guests grooming stations, Jog a Dog treadmills, and indoor potty areas covered by Perfect Turf synthetic grass.

On judging day, those who qualified to be inside the ring showed impeccable grooming. They had been scrubbed and cleaned. Nary a hair was out of place.

The dogs, too, looked their best.

The Havanese, a toy breed known for a gentle disposition and kewpie-doll cuddliness, were rated by Sari Brewster Tietjen, of Rhineback, N.Y., a stern-faced adjudicator.

Looking on the scene was Bev Dorma, a longtime dog breeder and Emily’s mother. She fretted that the appraiser was overlooking Reo, Canada’s reigning female Havanese champion.

“The judge ignored Emily the whole time,” she said. “We figured we weren’t going to win.”

Indeed, in a video of the judging posted by the kennel club, the judge barely glances at Reo, instead surveying the other little dogs with an unblinking gaze.

“She had poker face on,” Bev Dorma said. “Later you realize she was looking for her second-, third- and fourth-place winners. After her first going over and watching (the dog) move, she knew Reo was her winner.”

Indeed, the judge chose Reo as the show’s best in breed, a decision popular with the crowd.

“When she pulled Reo out of the front of the line, my whole body went into this shaking, oh-my-goodness mode,” Bev Dorma said. “Am I really seeing this? You’re so overjoyed. I don’t know who I was prouder of, my daughter or the dog. Both.”

A crying mother and stoic daughter celebrated with an embrace across the velvet rope, little Reo the meat in their hug sandwich.

Now back home, a proud mother sings the praises of her daughter.

“She wasn’t down on the ground like all the professional handlers. She did not have to keep Reo in a death grip for the judge to see her. Emily had the complete package. Not only did she have a perfect dog, but she presented herself and that dog to a T. She nailed it.”

The Havanese judging lasted nearly an hour, an eternity for even the best behaved pooch.

“The hardest thing is keeping your dog sparkling. And looking up. Looking happy and not bored for 45 minutes.”

Earlier, mother and daughter visited a Manhattan delicatessen to pick up chicken livers and hearts as bait for a dog’s undivided attention. On judgment day, Reo had to skip breakfast, a temporary sacrifice.

“She was a trooper,” Ms. Dorma said. “Solid as a rock. None of it bothered her. She didn’t get stressed.

“Her tail never stops wagging, she loves everybody, and she knows she’s special. She smiles and sneezes, smiles and sneezes.”

Reo was a home-raised pup. She obeys commands to stand, stay, sit, come, go, and heel. As a purebred, her lineage can be traced back farther than that of some families. She was born on March 6, 2006, sired by Pocotesoros Los Gabatos, known as Zorro, out of Mistytrails Catreeya Byemmy. (Catreeya, a champion brood bitch, now lives in a Victoria suburb, where she is a familiar figure teasingly known as the Queen of Sidney.) Reo’s grandmother still lives at the Dorma home.

On the return home, flight attendants permitted Reo to leave the crate to sit on the lap of her human companions, fitting status for a four-legged champion.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

On Vancouver Sun's 100th birthday, let's raise a toast to Mr. Nightside, a reporter's best friend

Bruce and Martha Smillie raised seven children and have 32 grandchildren (at last count). Smillie worked days on the docks and nights as late city editor for the Vancouver Sun. His reporters called him Mr. Nightside.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 16, 2012

The police scanner squawked with bursts of excited voices.

Shots fired. Man down.

Bruce Smillie looked out on a deserted newsroom. The reportorial staff had vanished. His crew was chasing down untold stories in the naked city, or, more likely, sampling some of the sinful temptations available in Vancouver on a Friday evening.

At last, he spotted a waif half-hidden behind a pillar — a long-haired, teenaged cub reporter in torn jeans and sneakers whose voice had yet to crack and did not shave.


In a calm but authoritative voice, Mr. Smillie, the night city editor of the Vancouver Sun, the largest and finest newspaper in Western Canada, filled me in on sketchy details gleaned from eavesdropping on the police.

Go with the photographer, he ordered. He’ll drive.

Good thing, I thought. I don’t have a driver’s license.

The newsroom reeked of cigarette smoke and spilled booze in the final year of that blighted decade, the ’70s. The dingy linoleum showed black pockmarks from the stubs of lit cigarettes tossed carelessly on deadline. When pulled open, desk drawers rattled with a symphony of empty glass bottles of booze.

The Vancouver dailies had just endured an eight-month strike. Bitterness prevailed. (The newspaper endured four strikes over the years, each shorter in duration. These are remembered as “eight months, eight weeks, eight days, ate lunch.”)

To fill out the roster, they’d hired a 19-year-old, soon-to-be-dropout with a thin resumé of student newspaper clippings. I handled weekend grunt duties — items, library research, police checks. (“Duty officer, please. Anything to report tonight in Ioco? Squamish? White Rock?”) It wasn’t Woodward and Bernstein, but it was all right.

The shifts began in the late afternoon, or, for a hapless few, at 8 p.m., concluding at 3 a.m. The first edition of the newspaper, known as the Three Star, as two earlier editions had been cancelled somewhere back in the Mesozoic era, rolled off the presses in the morning. The morning and evening crews had a rivalry, though the nighttime shift knew they were not only doing the bulk of the work, they were finding the interesting features for which the daytime deadline crew never had time.

Overseeing the action was Mr. Smillie, whose duties included assigning stories. The son of a Comox postmaster, he had got his start as a circulation clerk in the paper’s New Westminster office, later becoming a reporter in the bureau there. He had big workingman’s hands, a laurel wreath of greying hair, and, unlike so many others in the business, never raised his voice in anger. He had seven children at home, overseen by his wife, Martha. Those were a lot of mouths to feed, so during the long strike he worked on the waterfront, a job he held onto after the dispute settled as he still needed to make up for a shortfall in the family’s income. By day, he was a longshoreman responsible for stacking 50-kilogram (110-pound) sacks of flour in the hold of a cargo ship. By evening, he was at his desk, a lamp nearby to compensate for the newsroom’s dismal, yellowish lighting, the telephone ringing and the police scanner sputtering to life now and then. He was a real life Lou Grant and his staff loved him. They called him Mr. Nightside.

He was assisted by Archie Rollo, a soft-spoken Glaswegian of tidy attire who took dictation by telephone from reporters in the field, asking questions and rewriting even as the story was read aloud. He was encyclopedia, gazetteer, and spell check in human form.

So, though nervous about my first dangerous assignment — shots fired! man down! — I knew my back was covered by Mr. Nightside and his faithful sidekick, Archie.

In the meantime, I was in the hands of wild-eyed Dan Scott, a photographer with hair Brylcreemed to a pompadour atop his forehead. He’d been at the Sun since before I’d been born. By reputation, he would trample his mother to get the shot.

(If he even had a mother. It was within the realm of possibility he’d been raised by a pack of feral lensmen.)

We raced to a night club in suburban Richmond, screeching to a halt in the parking lot. I leapt out the passenger side, notepad in left hand, pen in right, running towards the entrance.

The door opened and a large, square-shouldered man emerged. Startled by my approach, he raised his right hand.



In the slow-motion memory one gets during a car wreck, I was staring down the barrel of a revolver. I put on the brakes, both heels forward like Wile E. Coyote trying to stop from going over a cliff, only to get bumped from behind. Mr. Scott was trying to get his photograph and, dammit, the kid reporter was in the way.

Turned out the man in the doorway was a plainclothes Mountie. The scene inside, a gangland hit, was unpleasant. The suspect, or suspects, had fled. The police on the scene were jittery. Back in the newsroom, Mr. Smillie called the duty officer, who apologized. No harm. No foul. Mr. Nightside dispatched me to the press club across the street. Just another day at the office for him.

Mr. Nightside stayed in the newsroom until retiring in 1994, a revered figure in a workplace not known for its harmony.

Mr. Rollo died 20 months ago, aged 76. The newspaper’s obituary, written by a cub reporter, praised his ability in catching such common errors as misspelling Gandhi. The obit made it through three copyeditors and into print with the leader’s name spelled “G-h-a-n-d-i.” There could have been no greater tribute to Archie’s talents.

Mr. Smillie is 82 now, patriarch of a fecund clan — his seven children have produced 32 grandchildren.

Asked his philosophy of running the newsroom, he said, “It was simple. If you treat people decently, they’re going to respond in turn. If you’re going to sit there as an ogre, they’re going to go in a different direction on you.”

A generation of young reporters thrived under his benevolent hand.

On the weekend, the Sun celebrated the 100th birthday of its first edition. The paper produced two handsome, well-written sections on its history in which, understandably, the ogres overshadowed the kindly Mr. Nightside, which is how these things work. Everybody remembers Mussolini, but no one can name his post-war successor.

Happy centennial, Vancouver Sun. Many happy returns, Mr. Nightside.

For Victoria vocalist Anne Schaefer, the waiting is over

It has taken Anne Schaefer several years to raise the funds to complete her second album of material, which is to be released on March 1. The record has already earned a nomination for album of the year. Chad Hipolito photographs for the Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 13, 2012


While giving a songwriting lesson last week, Anne Schaefer got a text message: She’d earned a nomination for album of the year.

The recognition by the Vancouver Island Music Awards was gratifying for the Victoria vocalist.

It could only have been better had the record been nominated in 2008 — when she first stepped into the recording studio.

The past four years have been an odyssey of penny pinching and money raising for Ms. Schaefer.

“I was stalled,” she said. “I ran out of money.”

Anne Schaefer
She held a fundraising concert. A good time was had by all. But she still didn’t have enough.

So, she held a second performance.

And then a third show.

Friends organized a silent auction in which one of the lots offered a private home concert by Ms. Schaefer. Other lots included donations by local businesses: a shiatsu message, a collection of vegan cookbooks, a weekend retreat on Hornby Island, gift certificates from a tea shop and a tattoo-parlor, four quarts of organic granola — you get the idea.

The most expensive item was an oil painting donated by the celebrated Victoria painter James Gordaneer, valued at $2,500.

The artist had played an unwitting role in inspiring the singer’s recording project.

He had loaned her a painting depicting two women atop stools, seen from the rear. She hung it in the room in which her pupils waited their turn for music lessons.

She contemplated the painting. Who were these women? What were they waiting for? She developed a concept for her album, which she dubbed The Waiting Room. The songs she wrote told the stories of daydreaming characters whose trajectories brought them to a temporary shared limbo.

“Waiting rooms are such strange places,” she said. “Waiting rooms bring together people of all descriptions — any age, any cultural background, any smattering of people. Different people collect in these places, yet in the end everybody’s suffering from the same stuff. It’s human condition. It’s the same across the board.”

Her debut album, Twelve Easy Pieces, released in 2005, had earned rave reviews. “The best singer/songwriter you’ve never heard of,” pronounced Monday Magazine. “A great musician with a clear love for jazz and world music,” trilled Radio-Canada. “She breathes talent, rigour and taste,” trumpeted Montreal’s La Presse. The Toronto Star hailed an “exceptional voice, a poet’s eye, a courageous heart, and a damn fine set of guitar-picking fingers.”

Reviewers compared her to Sade, Laura Nyro, Rickie Lee Jones, and even Van Morrison.

Not surprisingly, she was eager to follow up such a critical success.

A high-quality album costs about $40,000 to produce.

“That’s like a down payment on a house,” the singer said. “Imagine making a down-payment on a house every two years just to stay current in your profession.”

She got a “substantial” grant from the Canada Council, gratefully receiving a cheque for $13,000 in her right hand before passing it off to the recording studio with her left hand.

The basic tracks of The Waiting Room were laid down over a fortnight at Baker Studios in Victoria four years ago. But she didn’t have the money to complete the final mix and edit, so after spending two decades earning her keep as a musician she took her first 9-to-5 gig.

She became director of the Larsen School of Music.

Much of her workday was spent behind a desk.

In a waiting room.

“That was ironic,” she said. “I met all sorts of interesting characters.”

Born into a family of classical musicians from Saskatchewan, the Weyburn-born, Humboldt-raised Schaefer studied music at McGill University in Montreal. She arrived in Victoria a decade ago after spending four years in Argentina. She performed, taught privately, and offered instruction at what were billed as Rocker Girl Camps (think School of Rock minus the obnoxiousness of Jack Black). Then, she got the music school directorship.

Not so long ago, she returned to the studio for five intensive days of mixing.

“I finally saved enough to get it done,” she said, a donation from her boss helping put her over the top.

The CD will be released at a concert at Alix Goolden Hall in Victoria on March 1.

The choice for album art was easy. It’s the painting that helped inspire her concept.

Anne Schaefer's singing style has been compared to Sade, Laura Nyro, and Rickie Lee Jones.

Black history month a time to remember Joe Fortes

Joe Fortes teaches a girl to swim in the waters of English Bay at Vancouver.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 8, 2012

Mourners lined downtown Vancouver streets, doffing hats and bowing heads as a coffin passed.

The hearse was followed by a float carrying a small rowboat draped in evergreen boughs and the finest flowers from Stanley Park, freshly cut by city gardeners.

The Elks’ brass band played as the procession made a slow, dignified journey down Granville to Hastings to Main and on southward towards Mountain View Cemetery. Mounted police in dress uniform led the way, followed by the mayor and city councillors, as well as the police commission, the school board, and the park board.
Joe Fortes on the beach at English Bay

Ninety years ago this week, Vancouver bade farewell to its favourite citizen with a funeral larger than had ever been held in the city. At age 58, Seraphim Fortes, known to locals as Joe, had died of pneumonia and a stroke.

The city is commemorating black history month with a series of cultural and historical events in the coming weeks. Of the many who made a contribution to the city’s life, none was so loved as Joe Fortes.

His name lives on today, gracing a popular oyster house, where one assumes many diners suppose it is named after the restaurant’s founder.

A branch of the public library also carries his name. It can be found near the English Bay waterfront where he lived, and earned his reputation as a lifeguard and swimming instructor.

On the day of his funeral, the Holy Rosary men’s choir sang hymns in the cathedral. The air was redolent of incense mixed with the sweetness of bouquets and wreaths. A mound of mismatched single flowers had been placed atop the coffin by schoolchildren.

Those youngsters who did not attend the service instead had their studies interrupted in the classroom for five minutes, as a moment of silence throughout the city was followed by a lesson from teachers in self-sacrifice and devotion to duty.

At the gravesite, Rev. Fr. William O’Boyle told those gathered, “You do honour not only to Old Joe, who has just gone out with the tide on the great ocean of eternity, but to yourselves, indeed, in gathering to tender solemn homage of respect for the passing of a great soul.”

A marker placed in the ground atop the final resting place was a simple stone into which had been carved just three letters — JOE.

Named for the highest rank of angel, Seraphim Fortes was born to a Barbadian father of African ancestry and a Spanish (or perhaps Portuguese) mother on Feb. 9, 1863, in Port of Spain in the British sugar colony of Trinidad. At age 17, he left the Caribbean for Liverpool, England, where he won swimming races across the Mersey River.

In 1884, he joined the crew of the windjammer Robert Kerr, embarking from Britain on an ill-fated voyage to the Pacific coast. Rough seas at Cape Horn and an unhappy crew made for a harrowing sail. Then, the captain died. Even as the barque neared its destination, the battered ship grounded at San Juan Island, needing to be refloated. It was leaking badly when it limped into Burrard Inlet nearly a year to the day after leaving Britain.

The damaged boat was sold and the crew members paid off. Joe Fortes wandered into the Granville townsite and found work as a shoeblack. He was soon after employed by the Sunnyside Hotel as a porter and roustabout. As the fledgling city burned to the ground in what would be known as the Great Fire, young Mr. Fortes escorted a married woman and her son to safety aboard his old ship, anchored in the harbour. He also salvaged much of the hotel guests’ luggage before the building was consumed.

Those were but his first acts of bravery.

As the city quickly rebuilt, Mr. Fortes became bartender at the Bodega saloon, 21 Carrall St. He later took up similar duties down the block at the Alhambra Hotel before tiring of the saloon life and establishing himself in a tent on a slight rise of land overlooking English Bay. In time, he built a tidy waterfront cottage at the foot of what would become Bidwell Street.

A regular bather, Mr. Fortes soon became known for rescuing careless swimmers. In 1898, he rescued J.C. McCook, the newly appointed American consul for the Klondike gold-rush town of Dawson City, who suffered an attack in the water while visiting the city. The consul was recorded in newspapers as the fifth person to be rescued by Mr. Fortes.

The count was up to 11 in the summer of 1903, by which time Mr. Fortes had been hired by the city as lifeguard, swimming instructor, and special constable responsible for the beach.

In 1908, the city surprised him with the presentation of a gold medal. “I’ve always tried to do my best at the bay,” he said, “and I shall try to keep that reputation.”

As he aged, his barrel-chest grew ever thicker and he weighed nearly 300 pounds (136 kilograms). He claimed to drink a glass of salt water as a tonic for good health each morning.

He taught generations of children to swim. The newspapers of the day recorded his instruction as holding children afloat by gripping their swimsuits with both hands and ordering them to “Kick yo’ feet!” Among his charges were Sylvia Goldstein, the girl for whom the Sylvia Hotel was named, and Pat Slattery, a future sports columnist and politician. Mr. Fortes even appeared on post cards sold to tourists.

A few years after he died, leaving worldly goods estimated at just $228.66, a water fountain designed by the sculptor Charles Marega was erected in Alexandra Park near the beach he patrolled. An adult needs to crouch to take a sip, for it is not designed for grownups. Engraved on the back of the stone is the inscription, “Little children loved him.”

Joe Fortes stands in front of his cottage overlooking English Bay. VPL-86725.

For years after arriving in Vancouver, Joe Fortes worked in the hotels and saloons at the old townsite. Each day, he walked through the forest to swim in the waters of English Bay. After a while, he erected a tent on a small rise overlooking the waters.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Lake Cowichan radio station has a small voice, but big plans

Michael Bishop sits before the microphone at radio station CICV in Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island, a community station beaming to surrounding hamlets with five watts of power at 98.7 FM. Chad Hipolito photographs for the Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 6, 2012


A jar rests near the microphone at the radio station, a glass repository for coins coaxed from visitors’ pockets and purses.

A community radio station can be a nickel-and-dime affair.

Welcome to the office, studio and temporary fundraising centre of CICV, a community station found at 98.7 FM on the dial. They call themselves The Lake.

“We’re lake oriented up here,” said Michael Bishop, the chair of the station’s elected board of directors.

You can find the station in a white, two-storey building surrounded by a picket fence at 37 Wellington Road West in Lake Cowichan, “one block from the United Church,” the station website helpfully explains, “on a plot of land where the E&N railroad used to run.” The building is a former forest rangers station. With a gambrel roof, it looks like an old barn.

The antenna outside stands just 14-meters tall. On a good day, it sends the signal as far afield as Mesachie Lake, about six kilometres to the west. It does not always get as far as Honeymoon Bay, another four kilometres down the road, or across the lake to Youbou, both of which are in the shadow of Bald Mountain, a peak on a peninsula that juts into the lake.

The staff suggests attaching old-fashioned rabbit ears to a home radio to improve reception.

Five watts — count ’em, 5 — only gives you so much juice.

Even that pipsqueak voice is under threat. The station approaches a deadline in August by which time their temporary broadcast license — a learner’s permit is how Mr. Bishop describes it — will expire. They need to raise at least $5,000, and perhaps as much as $15,000, to complete an engineering study.

“We only have two little things to overcome,” Mr. Bishop said. “Time and money.”

It is a heady sum for the station, which depends on volunteers and whose greatest asset is the goodwill of a listening audience whose numbers they cannot even afford to count.

If they raise the money and succeed in hiring an engineering firm to complete a technical report for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the station intends to apply for a 50-watt license.

“We’re hoping to get it done on the cheap,” he said. “We’re in a small community and we want to stay here.”

If they fail, then such shows as The Psychedelicatessen (Randy Liboiron’s pick of weird music from 1960 to ’75) and Grandma Grace Storytime (during which Grace Bond reads children’s stories) will fall silent.

The station first hit the airwaves two years ago with items like a fisherman’s report highlighting cutthroat hot spots on Cowichan Lake.

The current schedule features lots of music — none of it appearing on the current Billboard 100, as dictated by their license — and old-time radio dramas.

Much of the programming is like leaning over the back fence to chat with the neighbours.

The station airs 13 local programs, beginning the broadcast week sharply at 9 a.m. Sunday with Animal Health Care, a husbandry show hosted by the aptly named Elaine Nurse. This is followed in the afternoon by Gary’s Gospel Mix with Gary Dyck.

On Tuesday and Thursday, local writer Catherine Dook presents Dock Diaries, featuring anecdotes about misadventures as a houseboat habitué. Mr. Bishop hosts his own show, too, called, not surprisingly, Open Mike, featuring a mix of “news, views and interviews.”

The airwaves are open to just about anyone with a willingness to don headphones and speak into the ether. Just the other day, Lindsey Hartshorn, the local high-school drama teacher, presented a radio drama written and performed by her pupils.

The station regulars now hope some of the teens might develop a regular show of their own.

The station currently reaches about 5,000 residents, a population that grows in summer, when city dwellers flee the Capital District and the Lower Mainland to enjoy the lake’s icy waters. Even so, Mr. Bishop estimates the listening audience numbers in the three figures.

Meanwhile, The Lake can be heard streaming on the Internet at cicv.streamon.fm, thanks to the sponsorship of a Victoria company that offers hyperbaric treatments.

The SOS (Save Our Station) campaign is off to a slow start, but the volunteers are hopeful, especially since Island Savings and Credit Union is accepting donations at any branch.

The station takes seriously its responsibilities. They want to stay on the air at least to be able to provide information should the area face a disaster, such as an earthquake, or forest fire.

On a good day, the staff even dreams about someday moving the antenna from the shadow of Bald Mountain to its peak

Just one thing.

Don’t drop your coins in the glass jar near the microphone when the red light is on.

Michael Bishop, host of Open Mike, stands outside the station's office and studio, located in a converted forest rangers' station.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Vancouver's rock ’n' roll history comes to tutti-frutti fruition

A chart from Vancouver radio station CKWX showed Elvis Presley topping the charts the week of April 27, 1959, with "Fool Such as I" b/w "I Need Your Love Tonight."

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 1, 2012

Back in 1956, an eager 11-year-old boy entered the record department at Woodward’s in downtown Vancouver. He asked the clerk for “My Prayer” by The Platters.

“I clutched my dollar in hand to get this record,” remembers Brian Tarling. “She told me they were sold out. I was absolutely devastated.”

It was the era of the 78 revolution-per-minute record, a dinner-plate-sized platter of black shellac. The lad wondered if there were any copies in that newfangled format, the 45 r.p.m. single.

“She went back, thumbing through a little box of 45s. And there it was!”

It was the year Elvis Presley made his continental television debut. In January, Elvis the Pelvis released what would be his first No. 1 hit. By the end of the year, he had nine singles on the Billboard Hot 100 and popular music was forever changed.

Boy DJ Red Robinson
In Vancouver, the local newspapers recognized this crazy, new rock ’n’ roll stuff was taking off with the young set. They began canvassing local disc jockeys for their top picks of the week. Among the most influential of these wax spinners was Red Robinson, the hyperkinetic boy deejay of radio station CJOR. Mr. Robinson soon after moved to CKWX, brought Elvis and the Beatles to town, and became a legend in his own right.

The popular jockey’s top-10 picks were soon joined by charts produced by rival stations, which offered longer selections called the “Hi-Fi Forty,” the “Funtastic Fifty,” and the “Sensational Sixty.” There was also a “Boss 30” and a “Silver Dollar Survey,” over the years producing an avalanche of songs and artists and record labels.

The boy who bought the Platters’ single grew up to be a chartered accountant. When he retired six years ago, he began a project that only recently came to tutti-frutti fruition — a compilation of every song charted by radio stations in Vancouver from 1956 to 1978.

The result is a self-published volume as thick as a telephone directory. The book lists 7,700 hits by 2,400 artists, from the Beatles to one-hit wonders. The songs are listed by artist, once again by year, and alphabetically by title. You can find out when the tune entered the charts, its peak position, how long it held the peak position, number of weeks (if any) it was in the Top 10, as well as the original Canadian label and catalogue number. The 654-page, $60 paperback book, with the utilitarian title Vancouver’s Charted Songs, ’56 to ’78, tells you just about everything except the brand of car in which the artists cruised.

Designed for fellow record-collector hobbyists, it holds within its practical pages all you need to know about such songs as “Boogie Bear” (Boyd Bennett), “Boogie Child” (Bee Gees), “Boogie Fever” (Sylvers), “Boogie Nights” (Heatwave), “Boogie on Reggae Woman” (Stevie Wonder), and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” (Bette Midler).

A special delight is in coming across such forgotten (forgettable? — ed.) novelties as “Brontosaurus Stomp” by The Piltdown Men, a Hollywood instrumental group with dueling saxophonists who charted briefly in 1960 after the debut of the animated prime-time sit-com, The Flintstones.

The painstaking task demanded an accountant’s t-crossing, i-dotting attention to detail.

“I’ve always been interested in the charts and the numbers and how the songs did,” Mr. Tarling said. “And I like the music.”

An Elvis man, the 66-year-old collector began his task of compiling chart information about the same time that a fellow rock fan, Jim Bower, launched a website featuring Top 40 songs from Vancouver stations. Mr. Tarling was also assisted by Larry (Firedog) Morton, a retired Vancouver fire department captain who had grown up taping songs off the radio with a reel-to-reel tape recorder.

Top of the Pops in Vancouver.
The big hits heard on the radio were joined by popular local acts such as The Prowlers (with Les Vogt, whose “The Blamers” knocked Elvis off the top of the Vancouver charts in 1960) and The Chessmen (featuring rhythm guitarist Terry Jacks, later to have a monster smash with — ear-worm warning — “Seasons in the Sun”). Add a dash of Pacific Northwest bands and a pinch of British Invasion, and the city’s radio mix was unlike that heard elsewhere.

The book includes listings for 1,700 songs that charted in Vancouver but did not make Billboard’s Hot 100.

Mr. Tarling estimates only five per cent of charted songs were Canadian before the introduction of mandatory Canadian content in 1971. Afterwards, about one in five charting songs were homegrown.

In 1979, Mr. Tarling moved into a custom-built house in Burnaby. It was designed with a den intended to hold his record collection, which now numbers 2,000 compact discs, 1,700 long-playing records, and 3,300 singles.

They are catalogued and alphabetized and he claimed to be able to find any tune in less than 30 seconds.

That 45 by the Platters? He has it still.

Brian Tarling’s book can be ordered here. Jim Bower’s website is nothing but fun. Any fan of the local scene will want to cruise over to Red Robinson’s blog. As well, the Vancouver CBC television news show followed up with a fine report of their own.

In 1961, rival station C-FUN offered a single coloured sheet listing its C-FUN-tastic 50.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

90-year-old tells the tales of women basketball legends

Kay (née MacRitchie) MacBeth of Comox is one of only two living members of the legendary Edmonton Grads basketball team. Mrs. MacBeth plays baritone ukulele with the Heartstrings group. Erin Wallis photograph for the Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 30, 2012


Kay MacBeth takes pills for high-blood pressure and pushes a walker to get around after fracturing her pelvis. She drives her own car and on Wednesdays can be found practicing with the Heartstrings, the Evergreen Seniors Club string band for which she strums baritone ukulele.

“I don’t know how much longer I’m going to play,” she said. “It’s getting a bit too much for me to drive that thing around, to get in the car and get my walker out.”

Time eventually denies us our greatest pleasures.

MacBeth has been a widow now for 15 years. She long ago gave up sports, even golf, a rare activity in which skill can compensate for the ravages of advanced age.

More than seven decades ago, when she was a fresh-faced schoolgirl graduate in Edmonton, she was invited to join the storied Edmonton Grads, the greatest women’s basketball team the world has ever seen.

The Grads played more than 400 official games, losing just 20, according to M. Ann Hall’s definitive account of the team, The Grads are Playing Tonight!, published recently by the University of Alberta Press.

From 1922, when the Grads first won the Dominion championship, until 1940, when the club disbanded, the Grads used just 38 players. That roster is now down to just two survivors — Edith (née Stone) Sutton, 101, of Edmonton, and Mrs. MacBeth, 90, of Comox.

Young Kay MacRitchie, as she was known in 1939, leapfrogged from a junior team to the Grads, becoming the first Grad not to first compete with the Gradettes feeder team, according to the new book. The spectacular rookie worried about how her new teammates and the overlooked Gradettes would react.

“I was only 17,” she recalled. “I felt they’d be angry at me, because they’d played for quite a few years. I was excited, of course, but I didn’t show it. I was the youngest. The next closest to me was five years older. I was scared to say anything, or do anything, but I gave it all I had when it came time to play.”

She had grown up playing dodgeball in Saskatchewan and only learned basketball in Grade 10.

She developed a sharpshooter one-handed shot, but Grads coach J. Percy Page, who was soon to be elected to the Alberta Legislature and later served as lieutenant general, thought it unladylike to use anything but a two-handed shot.

“I was fast and I was a better dribbler than most,” she said. “I called myself the Court Master. I’d rather make a pass than take a shot.”

Unmarried, still living at home while working as a government clerk, she helped the Grads continue their enviable record as holders of the Underwood International Trophy. The cup, sponsored by a typewriter company, pitted Canada’s best against teams from the United States. In Mrs. MacBeth’s two seasons, the Grads defeated challengers from Chicago; Cleveland; St. Louis; Des Moines, Iowa; and, Wichita, Kan.

The Grads won their final Canadian championship in May, 1940, when low attendance and the demands of the war caused the amateur club to cease operations.

When her parents moved to Vancouver, she went with them to join the local Hedlunds basketball team for a few seasons, while also playing softball in summer.

In 1946, she married longtime beau Ross MacBeth, who had spent four years overseas as a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot. The pending marriage forced her to turn down a chance to play semiprofessional baseball in Arkansas. She raised a family and settled in the picturesque Comox Valley on Vancouver Island.

Over the years, the feats of the amazing Grads faded from memory. Few remember a team once heralded for many years as world champions.

“When I went to Edmonton in ’33, everybody knew the Grads,” she said. “Hardly anyone knows them now.”

The wonderful new book by Ms. Hall, emeritus professor at the University of Alberta, provides an informative and richly detailed account of the women who were sports pioneers. It is authoritative and deserving of a wide readership.

The Grads exhibited their prowess as far afield as Europe decades before women’s basketball debuted at the 1976 Olympic Games at Montreal.

Just a few years ago, the surviving alumni numbered enough to field a team. Among them was Helen (née Northup) Alexander, nicknamed Peewee by teammates for her 5-foot-2 stature, Lilliputian by basketball standards. A longtime resident of Sidney, she died in 2009, aged 93.

“A good little player,” Mrs. MacBeth said. “One of the smarter ones.”

The most recent to exit life’s parquet floor is Helen (née Stone) Stewart, who died in Vancouver in June, aged 101. It is now the duty of her twin sister, Edith, and Mrs. MacBeth to act as witnesses for the greatness of the Grads.

It is not a responsibility without frustrations.

“When anyone phones me I feel stupid because I don’t know what happened way back in the Twenties,” said Mrs. MacBeth, who became a nonagenarian last week. “They expect me to know all that.”

Mrs. MacBeth was the penultimate player to join the Grads, a teenager among seasoned veterans who’d lived the team’s previous glories. They are gone now and it is left to a rookie to tell the stories of departed legends.

Ben Swankey, activist (1913-2011)

Ben Swankey, a Communist leader in Alberta, had been interned soon after the outbreak of the Second World War. On his release in 1942, he joined the artillery.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 18, 2012

At age 17, Ben Swankey joined his brother, a teacher on relief, at an anti-war rally at the old Cambie Street Grounds in downtown Vancouver. When demonstrators hauled out red flags secreted beneath their shirts and began to march without a permit, waiting policemen cracked heads with billy clubs, leaving many battered and bloodied.

Angered by the brutality, Swankey tore a white picket from a fence at a gas station, throwing it at the back of a mounted policeman.

The violence of that afternoon led the young man to the Carnegie Library, where he read Marx and Engels, soon after deciding to become a Communist.

For 60 years, Swankey, who has died, aged 98, served the party as a standard-bearer in elections and as a prolific pamphleteer. He was interned during the early years of the Second World War, his loyalty suspect by the Dominion government; on his release, the Soviet Union having since been invaded by Germany, he enlisted in the Canadian Army, serving briefly overseas. He returned to Canada to become party leader in Alberta during the Cold War, a time of hysteria and loyalty oaths, as well as the exposing of Communist spy conspiracies. After the execution of the Rosenbergs in the United States, Swankey’s daughter feared her father faced a similar fate.

He remained obedient to the Moscow-aligned party through the decades, a loyalty not broken by the non-aggression pact with the hated Nazis (1939), nor by the revelation of Stalin’s terrible crimes after the dictator’s death (1953), nor by the invasion of Hungary (1956) or Czechoslovakia (1968), nor by the imposition of martial law in Poland (1981). Only after Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms did Swankey come to fully realize his overseas utopia had been a dystopia. When efforts to reform the Communist Party of Canada were blocked, he at long last quit.
A poster from the late 1940s

“Thanks to Gorbachev,” he wrote in a 2008 memoir, “the mask had been torn off the ugly face of Stalinism and its legacy in the Soviet Union. The revelations were nothing less than horrendous. So many deaths, so much torture, so many lies, so many harmful policies and actions.”

Swankey’s great age made him a valuable resource for those seeking witness accounts of the struggles of the Depression. He could speak with authority about the On-to-Ottawa trek of 1935, as he had helped organize support for the striking relief camp workers led by Arthur (Slim) Evans, whose biography he later wrote with Evans’ daughter.

Swankey worked as a bartender, road builder, roofing inspector, and insurance salesman. As a labour journalist and organizer he met the great American singer Paul Robeson and the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagari. He also made the acquaintance of Norman Bethune, the Ontario-born doctor revered by the Chinese.

Bernhard Schwenke was born on Sept. 17, 1913, at Steinbach, Man., a few months after his parents immigrated to Canada from Russia. (Later, after he became politically active, he added a middle name, Rudolf, as he did not care for the initials B.S.) He was the fifth child born to Leokadia (née Krieger) and Gustav Schwanke. Four more children were borne by his mother in Canada, two of those sons dying in infancy.

The family soon after settled in Herbert, Sask., where the father found work as a railroad labourer. Young Ben hunted gophers with a homemade bow and arrow, eager to collect a two-cent bounty for each tail. At age 14, he rode the rails through the Rocky Mountains and then south to Washington state, where he picked apples, apricots, and cherries, before returning home to continue his schooling.

Three years later, he hitchhiked to Vancouver with a $10 stake. Soon after arriving in the port city, he was accosted by a young man selling Communist newspapers on the street.

“What we need is a Soviet Russia,” the man said.

“Go to hell,” Swankey replied angrily. He had grown up in a Lutheran and Mennonite community on the prairies. His antipathy to Communism changed a few weeks later after he witnessed the police riot.

The tumultuous events of 1931 — police shot and killed three striking miners at Estevan, Sask., and the Toronto headquarters of the Communist Party were raided and the leadership arrested — convinced him the party was the most likely to challenge capitalism.

One of his first assignments was to raise money, food and clothing for striking coal miners at Crowsnest Pass in 1932. He was arrested for the first time later that year for having helped organize a hunger march in Edmonton.

After marrying Olive Senko the day after his 20th birthday, the young couple tried homesteading northwest of Prince George, B.C. Swankey built a log cabin, enduring mosquitoes and horseflies in summer, surviving on rabbits he shot in winter. The harsh life was soon abandoned as the couple returned to Alberta, where he became a full-time activist.

While Canada’s Communists had been fierce critics of fascists throughout the 1930s, they altered their position soon after Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, leading to the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of the Second World War. Soon after Canada declared war, the Communist party was outlawed and party leaders were rounded up under the War Measures Act. Swankey, the Alberta secretary of the Young Communist League, spent more than two years in internment camps at Kananaskis, Alta., Petawawa, Ont., and Hull, Que.

He was released in September, 1942, immediately enlisting in the Canadian Army, going from an internment camp to an army training camp. During his internment, Germany had invaded the Soviet Union and the party’s opposition to the war was replaced by all-out support.

His marriage ended in divorce. During the war, he married again to Anne Wiseman, known as Hantzi, a pianist from Winnipeg whom he had met after a speech by Communist leader Tim Buck.

In 1945, while still in the service, Swankey ran for Parliament in Jasper-Edson, finishing last of five candidates with just under five percent of the vote. He campaigned for the Labor-Progressive Party, the banner under which the banned Communists had reorganized. Swankey also contested a seat for the House of Commons in 1949 in Edmonton East and in 1953 in Peace River, a seat held by federal Social Credit leader Solon Law.

Swankey became the party’s provincial leader in December, 1945. To be a Communist in Alberta during the Cold War was as unhappy as it sounds. The party could not afford to cover his $45 weekly salary, which fell $700 in arrears. He lasted until 1957 before moving his family to British Columbia, where he sold radios, insurance and roofing supplies. He also began writing for pro-Communist labour newspapers, as well as producing pamphlets, one of which, on the Métis rebel Gabriel Dumont, was said to have moved 50,000 copies in its Russian-language edition.

Swankey began working with Harry Rankin, a dynamic and acerbic criminal lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for municipal office for 11 years before getting elected to Vancouver city council in 1966. Two years later, Swankey helped found the Committee (now Coalition) of Progressive Electors, which has been active on the civic scene ever since.

He wrote several book-length works, including Man Along the Shore!, a history of the Vancouver waterfront and the longshoremen’s union. He also wrote a critiques of the Fraser Institute, a think tank advocating laissez-faire economics, and the first federal budget presented by the Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney. An examination of corporate concentration was titled, Brother, Can You Spare a Billion?

At age 94, he published a personal history, What’s New: Memoirs of a Socialist Idealist, prepared with the assistance of the labour journalist Geoff Meggs, who is now a Vancouver city councillor.

In his old age, Swankey became a well-known advocate for pensioners, as well as a defender of medicare, often working with the Council of Canadians, which presented him with the Ken Wardroper Founder’s Award in 1998 as an “unsung hero” in the fight for social justice.

His 90th birthday was declared Ben Swankey Day by Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell, now a Liberal Senator.

As his eyesight failed, he had a selection of newspaper articles read to him daily at the care home in which he lived in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby.

Swankey died on Nov. 22. He leaves a son, a daughter, six grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife, Hantzi, who died in 1988.

Swankey (left) signs a copy of Work and Wages!, the biography of Arthur (Slim) Evans.

Daniel Griffin makes long stories short

The Victoria writer Daniel Griffin spent a decade polishing the finely-crafted stories gathered in his debut collection, Stopping for StrangersChad Hipolito photographs for the Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 16, 2012


The short story is said to be an endangered species, a literary form once as ubiquitous as buffalo on the prairie now doomed to become the purview of an elite few.

The format blossomed a century ago, its popularity enhanced by publication in magazines with mass readership. Every newsstand carried posters advertising a magazine’s serialized novel, or a popular writer’s latest short story. Fiction was a staple of the popular magazine.

Alas, today the short story seems more likely to be found in a journal produced by a literary press associated with a university. Reviews are rare, shelf space at the bookstore limited.

One place in which the genre thrives is Victoria, which counts among its practitioners such accomplished writers as John Gould, Bill Gaston, Yasuko Thanh, and M.A.C. Farrant, among others. The late Carol Shields made her home here, as did the peerless Alice Munro, who lives in Ontario in the summer and in Comox in winter.

Another brave scribbler unwilling to abandon the form is Daniel Griffin, 40, whose first collection, Stopping for Strangers, was recently published by Esplanade Books, the fiction imprint of Véhicule Press of Montreal.

“The stories are about families in crisis,” he said. “Family under pressure. People trying to connect. About young people who may have become parents earlier than they would have chosen. People who are struggling to do the right thing under the circumstances.

“People talk about these stories being dark. I don’t see them the same way. I hope I’m taking a compassionate look at the darker corners of our lives in this time.”

In the opening story, “Promise,” the protagonist detours to visit his brother’s estranged wife. She has been beaten and is in grave danger. A subtle reference made in passing to a street name — Helmcken, rendered here as Helmken — places the story on Vancouver Island.

(Dr. John S. Helmcken was a surgeon with the Hudson’s Bay Co. His house still stands on its original site next to the Royal B.C. Museum.)

“Helmken borders forest,” Mr. Griffin writes. “Deep dark stands of cedar climb a gentle slope on one side of the street and tower over the bungalows opposite. Here people lived on the cleaned-up corners of the land. Wilderness begins at the end of every street. Two steps off the paved road the world turns raw and wild.”

Mr. Griffin’s stories turn on suicide, violence, infidelity, lingering hospital deaths, but those events happen on the periphery. The writer is more interested in relationships and missed connections.

“Difficult things happen in these stories,” he said “The characters aren’t always the most lovable. But those people exist out there.”

Mr. Griffin’s work has been compared to that of Raymond Carver, a writer whom he cites as an inspiration. Joel Yanofsky in the Montreal Review of Books praised Griffin’s “economical, unadorned prose.”

Such spare work is the result more of rewriting then writing. He is a stern editor, revising and reworking his own work again an again. “When the writing is in red ink, it looks like blood, all over the margins and onto the backside,” he said.

A decade of winnowing has resulted in the 10 crystalline stories found in this collection, including “The Last Great Works of Alvin Cale,” a finalist for the Journey Prize in 2009, which was won that year by Ms. Thanh. (At $10,000, the Journey is the 6/49 of short-story awards.)

Mr. Griffin was born in Kingston, Ont., where his father, Malcolm, is now emeritus professor of mathematics, while his mother, Sharon Thompson, is an accomplished painter. One of three brothers, he grew up in a home of serious purpose — no television, and classical music on the turntable. Non-fiction trumped fiction. Novels were regarded as “a nice escape,” he recalls, “but a little indulgent.”

While working as a blacksmith at Fort George, a national historic site, fellow workers introduced him to Canadian literature, and he devoured Timothy Findley and Robertson Davies.

Mr. Griffin spends two hours every day — in the morning and at lunchtime — working on his writing, a disciplined habit he maintained even in the chaos of a year spent in Chennai (formerly Madras), India. He moved there with his wife, Kim, and their daughters Evelyn, Tessa and Vivian, now aged 6 to 11. He helped open an office for his brother’s tech company. The family returned to Victoria a fortnight ago.

“You’ve got to let the characters live on the page,” said Mr. Griffin, who has been a writing instructor. “If you discover you’re in charge of the characters something is wrong. If they’re in charge of the story, then you’re on the right track.”

His characters are memorable ones, their dilemmas familiar, their judgments and actions not always for the best. Mr. Griffin’s writing deserves a wide audience.

Daniel Griffin is joined by his wife Kim and their three daughters on the porch of the family home in Victoria, providing a happy domestic scene not likely to be found in his spare, memorable short stories.