Masks and Circles

A mask has become a statement. It says I care about my health and yours. Or it says you have surrendered your liberty. I think a mast is even deeper than that.

You see, I see us all as the enlightenment’s willing adherents. It began when a number of 17th-century European philosophers upset mankind’s apple cart. They independently, and with variations on a theme, argued that progress is not determined by God but by us. Progress, they said, is natural, relentless, and linear. We need to think of life, they contended, in terms of straight lines.

The notion of linear progress was perfectly fine until challenged by the bloody trenches of the First World War, the extermination camps of the Second, and now COVID’s costs. Maybe progress does not follow a straight line after all. Perhaps Indigenous spirituality was on to a more fundamental and enduring truth long before religions demanded they were right and Locke, Hobbes, and their buddies insisted they were wrong. Maybe it’s not about lines but circles.

Consider the talking circle. It is a traditional way for Indigenous North Americans to solve problems. In a traditional talking circle, men sit at the north and the women south. A conductor, who is nearly always silent, sits to the east. A token of some sort – a feather in many circles – is passed and, like the old camp game, only those with the token can speak. It removes barriers and allows people to freely express themselves as equals with equally valuable experiences and views.

The talking circle is appearing more regularly in corporate boardrooms and team dressing rooms around the world for the simple reason it works remarkably well. Teachers call it a Harkness Table.

The healing circle is the talking circle’s most powerful iteration. Participants speak of whatever is bothering them with others listening without interruption. As parents and psychologists know, the act of speaking allows the first steps toward healing. The act of listening encourages empathy and support and invites not judgement, punishment, or revenge but justice and redemption. Alcoholics Anonymous employs this ancient technique.

(Photo by Jeff Dean via Getty Images)

The spiritual among us get it. Hermes Trismegistus once said, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” The poet T. S. Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

We are into our second year of the pandemic and people are tired of how it has disturbed their lives. I bet people grew tired of the sacrifices demanded during the world wars too. Progress no longer seems linear. The air has become smudged with attacks and broken promises. New facts are dismissed as proof of old lies. Because we can’t trust everything we are told to trust nothing.

Amid the screaming on cable news, social media, and street protests we can see frustration that the enlightenment’s version of linear progress may not be true. More than that, if we look carefully, we see circles asserting themselves.

Some want their circles to be small. They say we should be loyal to and responsible for only ourselves and immediate families. Everyone of a different class, race, religion, or region be damned. Others allow a little broader circle of compassion and argue that we should also feel loyal to and responsible for those of our own country. Those outside our locked borders should be left to themselves. We’ve made it into the tree house, they say, and should happily kick down the ladder. Still others, however, expand their circle further. They argue that we are all human beings and so we should feel loyalty to and responsibility for all.

When boiled to its essence, our thoughts regarding staying home, wearing masks, and sharing vaccines are all about whether we believe enlightenment philosophers were wrong and that Indigenous spirituality is right. Is it really all about circles – our societal and personal circles. It is about how we interpret progress and how broadly we draw our circle of loyalty and responsibility. Who knew a small piece of cloth could be so deeply powerful?

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Roman was a Russian

Roman was a Russian or maybe Ukrainian. The folks of his town went from one to the other with each shift of the restless border. From the bitter cold of the 1905 winter came a worker’s revolt. Tsar Nicholas reacted first with concessions but soldiers were soon attacking trouble-makers. Those with books were deemed especially dangerous. Roman’s uncle imperiled his family for reading, among other things, the poetry of Ukrainian nationalist Taras Shevchenko, whose words inspired the oppressed to feel power and the shamed to know pride.

With rumours of soldiers on the way Roman’s parents told him to run. The eighteen-year-old hitched rides and jumped trains for weeks until finding the coast at Antwerp. He snuck aboard the first lackadaisically secured ship he could find and hid beneath a lifeboat’s thick tarp. After two days at sea he emerged dirty and hungry and agreed to work for his fare.

 A long and roiling journey took him to Rio de Janeiro. For nearly two years he hacked roads to resources through the Amazonian rain forest. One steaming afternoon a workmate rhapsodized of a place with more high-paying jobs than people – Canada.

Roman bought a ticket for the first northbound ship. But he was tricked. Declared a stowaway, he was forced into back-breaking labour as the hulking cargo vessel steamed around the world. After nearly a year of depredation he gazed longingly at the Statue of Liberty. Excited for his first leave in months, he and two friends signed for their meagre pay but then were grabbed, lashed, and thrown onto their bunks; they’d been duped into re-upping for another year.

Just before dawn a sympathetic crewmate cut the ropes and helped them sneak to the deck where they leapt into the cold, dark water. Three unkempt young sailors shuffled through the Battery’s morning mist. A gentleman with an expensive suit and friendly smile said they looked lost. In his best, broken English Roman explained that they were on their way to Canada. The man laughed and said they must be the luckiest boys alive because he worked at the Canadian consulate. The sorry little gang were given train tickets to Montreal.

Montreal was a French city run by the English, and all on the backs of those speaking a hundred tongues. Roman found a job in a large and dirty iron works and happiness in the city’s thriving Ukrainian community. After a particularly trying shift he was told that steel factories offered safer work and better pay and that an American had just started a new steel company in Ontario. Within days he was on a train to Ontario.

Hamilton was a tough, hard-hat town. Factories hugged Burlington Bay. Shady bosses held sway in the multi-ethnic east side, and everyone called the towering Niagara escarpment that watched over it all the mountain.  The place brimmed with the power and potential of the industrial age. Roman was among the first employees at Hamilton’s Dominion Steel and Casting Company that became Dofasco. Roman was a molder. He created castings into which molten metal was poured to make machines, the bank vault now part of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and even the turbines at the Hoover Dam. He built weapons for the First World War and in the Second his three daughters were among the women who traded dresses for overalls to defeat Hitler. 

Roman with his wife and daughters

Upon retirement, Roman purchased a small farm near Port Dover. He grew corn and every year turned 11 acres of grapes into sweet wine. His grandson worked the farm each summer. Later, Roman walked his great-grandson among what to the little boy were towering corn stalks. He tried but failed to reassure his great grandson that the barn and those squawking chickens were not terrifying.

That scared little boy was me. In my home today is a painting of my great-grand father’s Port Dover farm. It is more ideal than real; perhaps like elements of his adventurous escape. But that’s okay. Societies need myths to define and inspire and so do families. Like the tenacious Ukraine, my family is a little dysfunctional at the edges but rock-solid at its core.

Meanwhile, a new Tsar is creating the same old havoc with Mr. Putin massing Russian troops on the Ukrainian border then, like a torturer applying his craft, withdrawing them just a little. Ukraine is back fighting for imaginary lines and Shevchenko’s poems are again on Ukrainian lips. As we watch egos and power and money at war let’s pause to consider the people in those border towns who wake up each day and do their best. I know, as do thousands of others living in Canada today, that their struggle will echo for generations and in ways we can’t yet imagine.

Courage and Compassion

It was four o’clock in the morning on December 20, 1978. Cradling her sleepy children in her arms, Rebecca Trinh clambered up to join five others on the hood of an old and overcrowded truck. Her husband Sam stuffed himself into the back, clutching a large backpack that contained all they now owned. The truck joined a convoy that was soon bouncing along in the dark on bumpy dirt side-roads.

            Rebecca, Sam, (their Anglicized names) and their two small daughters had been a middle-class family living as happy a life as possible in Saigon while the Vietnam War had raged in far aways jungles and parts of the city far from their home. Now, however, their Chinese heritage had deemed them enemies of the splintering state. They were among thousands on the run for their lives. Weeks after leaving their home with two backpacks and hope for better, they were on an overcrowded, leaky ship approaching Malaysia.

            Rebecca and Sam clutched each other and held their children tight. There were screams as ten pirates armed with axes, machetes, knives, and handguns yelled that all were to board the pirate ships now lashed to the gunnels. The pirates roughly groped their victims and anything of value was taken. Rebecca and Sam had their wedding rings ripped from their fingers. The boat was ransacked with bags torn apart, secret compartments slit, and gold and personal mementos stolen. Finally, after three harrowing hours, the petrified passengers were shoved back aboard and the pirate ships disappeared over the blue horizon. 

            That night, the captain shouted that another pirate ship was approaching. He tried to outrun it but was soon overtaken. Pirates again came aboard but while stepping on some passengers and striking others they quickly realized that there was nothing left to steal. Shuddering women and girls were relieved when, miraculously, a second crew of pirates left them unmolested.

            At about eight the next morning the ship entered Malaysian territory. Salvation appeared in the form of coconut trees on the far shore. But a Malaysian naval vessel approached and through loud speakers announced that they would not be allowed landfall. A chain was thrown and attached and the boat crammed with pleading people was towed back out to international waters. Like all ships under tow, it listed to and fro with waves and spray drenching all aboard. Twice it nearly capsized. After two hours of perilous hauling, the chain was released and the Malaysian captain shouted over the speaker that they were to sail straight ahead for two or three days where they would find Indonesia.

            Towing was a common occurrence. By the middle of 1978, the Malaysian government had decided that it had accepted enough Vietnamese refugees and could handle no more. Over the next couple of years about 40,000 desperate people were towed away. Thailand’s government had made the same decision and posted its army on the Cambodian border. At one point, a squadron of Thai soldiers aimed their weapons at thousands of starving people who had walked for weeks to escape their country’s madness. They were turned around and forced down a mountain trail. Several hundred were killed and others mutilated as they walked through a minefield that the soldiers must have known was there.

            The captain knew that no one had enough food or water for another three days at sea. People were falling ill and more children had died. He wanted to save his passengers and crew as well as his own family members who were on board. He conjured a plan, moved further up the coast to avoid naval vessels, and then tacked back along the Malaysian coast.

            The captain picked his spot and under the cover of a moonless sky maneuvered the boat as close to shore as possible. Shouts rang out and everyone scrambled to their feet. They were told to grab their possessions and yank boards from decks or walls and anything else that could float. They were abandoning and scuttling the boat.

            Rebecca  stood at the rail holding her two crying girls and watched others leaping into the dark waves. Sam yelled that he would go first and that she should then throw Judy to him. She watched him jump and for a terrifying moment he was gone until, sputtering and waving, he resurfaced and yelled up to her. Rebecca sat Helen on the deck and held her with one foot while she picked Judy up with both hands and with all her might threw the screaming child into the darkness. Judy plunged into the water just in front of Sam and in seconds he had her. Rebecca then picked up Helen and planned her move. She tossed her crying baby high into the air and at the same moment jumped, smacking into the water and then frantically scrambling back to the surface where she threw her hands into a splash beside her and astonishingly caught her howling daughter. Treading water with one arm and pulling Helen close with the other, she thanked God for having saved them all.

            Sam was quickly beside them and they turned toward the shore, several hundred yards away. Screams for help pierced the night but they had to keep swimming. Rebecca praised God again as she crawled, exhausted, onto the sand. The children had become too cold and wet and scared to cry. But now, safe and on the huge, desolate beach, their mother did.

            Rebecca’s family eventually made it to Canada. The majority of Canadians did not want them or the others escaping the madness of post-war Vietnam. But enough Canadians listened to their hearts. Enough Canadians saw that the Vietnam War, in which Canada had been involved from the beginning, was asking just what a Canadian was and should be.

(Rebecca Trinh’s story is one of many in my 8th book, “The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.” It was published in Canada and the USA by Knopf Penguin Random House on April 13, and is available now through Chapters, Amazon, or, as Stuart McLean used to say, sensible bookstores everywhere.)

Canada and Two Wars: Vietnam and Yemen

We Canadians try to be on the right side of history but too often we fail. We fail largely because morality and money are seldom on speaking terms. Consider our role in two immoral wars.

            Canada was officially neutral in the slow-motion tragedy that was the Vietnam War. But we were not. Canadian soldiers and diplomats were in Vietnam throughout the war as part of the International Control Commission charged with observing a non-existent ceasefire. Canadian doctors and nurses ran Canadian-built hospitals in Vietnam and over 20,000 Canadians joined the American military to fight in hamlets and jungles. Over 30,000 young Americans evaded military service by coming north. They were joined by thousands of refugees who fled the post war madness. But there was more.

            Throughout the Vietnam War, Canadian companies, and American subsidiaries operating in Canada, produced and sold to the United States a wide range of goods that included ammunition, air craft engines, grenades, gun sites, TNT, generators, military vehicles, spare parts, and more. Over the course of the war, Canadian steel and iron exports to the U.S. rose by 54%. The majority of the nickel used by American plants building war planes, missiles, and armoured vehicles came from Canada.

            Canada also played a role in the chemical warfare in Vietnam. The Dow Chemical Company’s Sarnia plant manufactured napalm. It was a blend of gasoline, benzene, and polystyrene that, when dropped from helicopter gunships or fixed-wing aircraft, burned the flesh of those it touched, destroyed fat tissues, and left victims writhing in insufferable agony.

            The Uniroyal Chemical Company produced Agent Orange at its plant in Elmira, Ontario, about 80 miles north west of Toronto. The herbicide defoliant burned the leaves from trees and robbed the Viet Cong of jungle cover. Scientists determined that Agent Orange was carcinogenic and that those who ate contaminated food, drank contaminated water, or were exposed to the spray suffered dramatically increased incidents of cancer. Exposure also caused genetic damage resulting in the birth of terribly ill or disfigured children.

            The people of Elmira were exposed to Agent Orange for years and their fight for restitution continues. In 1966 and 1967, American Army helicopters tested Agent Orange in New Brunswick at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown. Hundreds of people there and nearby suffered long term consequences but it took a generation for the Canadian government to admit what it had allowed to happen and to offer compensation.

            Canada’s profiting from the immoral war was simple to explain. Canadian Defence Production Minister Charles “Bud” Drury said in 1966 that arms sales to the United States were responsible for 13,000 to 15,000 Canadian jobs with spin-off jobs probably totalling 110,000. In 1968, Treasury Board President Edgar Benson stated, “Unemployment would rise if arms shipments to the U. S. were stopped. It is to our benefit to continue the program.” Vietnam era diplomat John Holmes observed that with respect to Vietnam, “You hang on to your principles but find a way around it.”      

            It would be nice to think that we learned from our Vietnam War experience. We have not. In 2017, we exported $1.03 billion in arms, with the United States our best customer. Second was Saudi Arabia, which had just been tagged by Amnesty International for violating human rights at home and in its dirty war in Yemen. Canada’s sales to Saudi Arabia primarily involve military vehicles made by General Dynamics Land Systems in London, Ontario. The multi-year deal was signed by the Harper government then later renegotiated by the Trudeau government.

             In November 2017, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development was considering changes to laws regulating arms production and sales to foreign customers. Christyn Cianfarani, President and CEO of the Canadian Defence and Security Industries, appeared before the committee and stated that she represented 800 Canadian defence and security companies that generated $10 billion in annual revenues and employed 63,000 Canadians who earned wages 60% higher than average manufacturing wages. The committee ended up recommending no changes that would threaten Cianfarani’s impressive numbers. Human Rights Watch reported last year that the Saudi-led war in Yemen has resulted in the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Yemen has seen 233,000 deaths. Over 25% of those killed in air raids are women and children. More than 20 million people in Yemen are now experiencing food insecurity.

(Photo: Atlantic Magazine)

            Yet, in 2019, Canada sold $3.7 billion of military goods and technology. Saudi Arabia continued to be our second-best customer accounting for $2.9 billion or 76% of non-U.S. military export sales. According to the government’s Exports of Military Goods report, “The Government of Canada strives to ensure that…Canadian goods and technology are not used in a manner that is prejudicial to human rights, peace, security or stability.” Please.

            Brock University assistant professorSimon Black has led protests against continuing our involvement in the Yemen war through continuing our arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He has said, “Most Canadians don’t realize that weapons manufactured here continue to fuel a war that has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.” He’s wrong. We know. We knew in the 1960s when we were profiting from the immoral war in Vietnam. And we know now.

            A voice in the wilderness is Spadina—Fort York, Liberal MP Adam Vaughan. He has said, “I believe the humanitarian crisis in Yemen requires us to suspend military shipments to the region and provide more in the areas of food and medicine.” We won’t do it.

            We won’t because the lessons taught in Vietnamese jungles are the same as those being taught again in Yemeni streets. But lessons taught are not lessons learned because, in the end, money doesn’t talk – it swears.

(This article first appeared in the Globe and Mail on Saturday April 10, 2021. If you enjoyed this article, please share it with others and consider picking up The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War which will be published this week in Canada and the United States by Knopf Penguin Random House.)

Canadians Fighting in Vietnam

Rob McSorely was 17 when he quit East Vancouver’s Tempelton Secondary School, craving the action and adventure of war. His distraught parents did all they could to dissuade him but he was determined. McSorley skipped across the border to Blaine, Washington and enlisted.

            After training, he was flown to Vietnam as a proud member of the U.S. Army Ranger’s 75th Infantry, L Company, 101st Airborne Division; nicknamed the Screaming Eagles. On April 8, 1970, McSorley’s twelve-person unit was in the A Shau Valley at the Laos border. Mission Grasshopper involved infiltrating positions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, reporting on Viet Cong or NVA movement, engaging if necessary, and calling for air support when needed. Most of the reconnaissance work was done through thick jungle that restricted visibility to just a yard. The Rangers were battle-tested and combat-hardened. They relied on each other like the brothers they had become. At 1:30 in the afternoon, four helicopters dropped them at the designated landing zone (LZ) just inside the Laotian border. Two of the helicopters were empty, to deceive anyone who might be watching about the group’s size.

            They immediately saw a number of NVA running down the hill, away from the LZ. Others were spotted on a hill above their position. The Rangers quickly moved to set up a secure perimeter and waited for the inevitable attack that for some reason never came. A single helicopter was called in to fake an extraction, hoping it would entice the NVA into the open.

The ploy worked. Bullets sprayed the helicopter, allowing the Rangers to spot enemy positions and return fire. The firefight quickly escalated with the NVA attacking the Rangers’ perimeter at McSorley’s position. They put their M-16s on rock’ n’ roll – firing automatic bursts – and McSorley killed two NVA and wounded more. Amidst the firing he yelled to Frank “Buff” Johnson: “Hey Buff, I feel like John Wayne!” They continued firing until, finally, the NVA withdrew. There was another quick exchange and another tense quiet.

            With less than two hours of sunlight remaining, the Rangers gathered their gear and prepared to return to the landing zone. McSorley’s closest friend in the unit was another teenager, Bruce Bowland. Bowland was to walk point, that is, lead the column through the jungle. McSorley smiled and said to his less experienced friend, “You forget who taught you to walk point?” Bowland nodded and McSorely took the perilous point position.

            The men were slowly and quietly making their way with McSorley out in front when AK-47 fire crashed in front and around them. McSorely killed three NVA but then his weapon jammed. He took three shots in the chest and shoulder and lay wounded in open ground, over 30 feet in front of the others. Gary Sands crawled out and dragged McSorley back to safety. With McSorley moaning in agony, the firefight continued. Within fifteen minutes he was dead. It was just two weeks past his nineteenth birthday.

            Days later, the doorbell rang at McSorley’s Vancouver home. A hand-delivered telegram brought the news. McSorley’s parents were shattered. It was the wrong order. Children should not die before their parents. Time saw their grief and isolation grow for no one they knew shared their experience of losing a child while fighting in a foreign uniform in a foreign land in an unpopular war.

Rob McSorley (Photo: VVMF)

Rob McSorley’s name is carved into the reflective black granite of Washington’s Vietnam Veteran’s War Memorial. Difficulty in defining exactly who is Canadian allows us only to estimate that between 79 and 160 other Canadians share that honour. Canadian visitors remember them by visiting the wall and completing paper and charcoal rubbings, and leaving flags, roses, and tears.

            It has been estimated that between 12,000 and 40,000 Canadians enlisted in the American armed services and fought in the Vietnam War. Some, like McSorley, went for the adventure, some to fight communism, and others because of a sense of duty, having grown up knowing that nearly every man they knew was a veteran. While many died, all suffered. Many returned home as physically and emotionally damaged as their American comrades but to a country that either didn’t know they had fought or had been crazy for having done so.

            The Vietnam War stole many Canadian lives and continues to affect thousands of others. Canadian Vietnam War veteran Doug Carey, who lives outside Ottawa, speaks of being among those who suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He can still never play a round of golf without scanning the trees for danger. The stories of Canadians who donned an American uniform to fight are just one part of the larger story of how Canada fought the Vietnam War and was forever changed by it.

(Doug Carey’s story and that of others that fought is one of many in my 8th book, “The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.” It will be published in Canada and the USA by Knopf Penguin Random House on April 13, but can be pre-ordered now through Chapters, Amazon, or, as Stuart McLean used to say, sensible bookstores everywhere.)

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Joe Erickson and the New Underground Railroad

Joe had a decision to make. It was 1968. He was married and a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota. As required by law, he had registered with the United States Selective Service System. The Vietnam War was escalating. Joe and Mary agreed that he would not fight in a war which they believed was morally wrong. He could portray himself as a conscientious objector but that would be a lie. He could go to prison. But there was a third option. After many long and difficult discussions, he and Mary decided that they would escape to Canada.

            In March, Joe and Mary packed what little they had into their old Chevy and drove north. They watched with great relief as the Canadian border agent stamped their forms and wished them luck. Hours later, with the sun setting, they pulled into Winnipeg; a city in which neither knew a soul. Joe had become a thief, having stolen government property by depriving the state of his body.

(Photo credit unknown)

            Joe had joined an army of those rejecting the army. Many moved to rural and remote areas, living alone or in small groups of resister enclaves while others formed communes. Most though, settled in cities and most of them, like Joe after a couple of years, ended up in or near Toronto.

            Many war resisters, like Joe and Mary, made the trek and settled on their own. Thousands of others were helped by resister organizations. Canada’s most influential resister support group was formed at the University of Toronto in 1964 as The Student Union for Peace Action. The ongoing waves of resisters shifted its focus from protesting nuclear proliferation to helping young Americans to settle and find work. In 1966 it became the Toronto Anti-Draft Program.

            Many resisters found that adjustment to Canadian life led to heartaches, regret, and, for some, clinical depression. Some experience trivial problems akin to the discomforts felt by American tourists discovering that corner stores didn’t sell Marlboro cigarettes or beer. Resister Jack Todd later wrote that his compatriots initially assumed that Vancouver’s overall quiet, gentleness, and politeness were insincere but that they learned to accept and enjoy it. They adopted Canadian idiosyncrasies such as celebrating Thanksgiving in October and adding the letter ‘u’ to words like colour and neighbour. They agreed, though, that it would be time to leave if they ever fell into the Canadian habit of ending sentences with “eh?”.

Resisting the Resisters

While many Canadians, especially church groups, welcomed the resisters, others did not. A 1968 poll indicated that 58% of Canadians believed war resisters should not be allowed into the country. Many Canadians saw them as even more dangerous than the growing number of long-haired young people with odd clothes and annoying music because they were outsiders. Like so many of the rebellious children, the appearance, actions, and very presence of these hordes of young Americans seemed to be tearing down the old while offering nothing new.

            Toronto Mayor William Dennison spoke for many when he said in 1968, “A few hippies and deserters are Toronto’s only problem.” Vancouver Mayor Tom Campbell said on CBC TV: “We’ve got a scum community, that have organized, have decided to grow long hair, and decided to pretend to be hippies…Half of them are American draft dodgers who won’t even fight for their own country.”

            The number of draft dodgers and deserters who settled in Canada has been estimated at between 40,000 to 60,000. When, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter offered amnesty, American film crews rushed to the border to film the mass exodus back home. They were disappointed. Some returned. Most, however, like Joe Erickson, were already home.

            Joe and a friend had formed a company specializing in the restoration of pre-Confederation rural historic buildings. Joe and Mary split but he found love again. He eventually settled on a southern Ontario farm where he renewed his love of theatre and horses. Like the thousands of others, he was changed by Canada and, in turn, the massive influx of so many predominantly well-educated young people had changed Canada. They had forced Canadians to consider who they were and who they wished to be.

            In September 2012, Joe was at the American border on the way to a high school reunion. The guard looked at Joe’s Canadian passport and frowned. Joe was in his 60s and the 60s was seeking revenge. Joe was about to experience the shock of his life.

(Erickson’s story and that of the war resisters is one of many in my 8th book, “The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.” It will be published in Canada and the USA by Knopf Penguin Random House on April 13, but can be pre-ordered now through Chapters, Amazon, or, as Stuart McLean used to say, sensible bookstores everywhere.)

The One-Woman Army

Admirers called Claire Culhane the One-Woman Army. In May 1967, the 48-year-old hospital administrator read an article about a tuberculosis hospital being built by Canadians in the South Vietnamese coastal city of Quảng Ngãi. She was so moved that she signed on with external affairs and within weeks she was there, right in the middle of the Vietnam War.

            The small Canadian hospital, run by Canadians, saw 150 patients a day. Those suffering from the area’s TB epidemic were treated along with victims of the war, many wounded by American bombers. Most were women and children, weak with malnutrition and ghastly wounds. Culhane and the Canadians worked tortuous hours with their lives always at risk. They were evacuated during 1968’s Tet Offensive but were soon back; the hospital now a fortress.

            Culhane respected the hospital’s first director but his replacement was officious and cleared the hospital of all non-TB patients. She was angered upon discovering that he regularly gave copies of her meticulous patient records to the CIA. Its agents used them as part of its counterinsurgency program that saw teams descend on villages to interrogate male adults and kidnap, torture, or kill those suspected of hiding information or being Viet Cong.

            It was the last straw for Culhane. Six months into her one-year assignment, she left. Upon her arrival back in Canada she met with external affairs officials and wrote a detailed report of all she had seen and learned. She was ignored. But she persisted.

(Photo by Mike Slaughter/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

            With help from Canada’s only national anti-war organization, the Voice of Women, she trained a searchlight on Canada’s secret involvement in the Vietnam War. In newspaper editorials, magazine articles, letters to politicians, and speeches delivered across the country she addressed the twisted irony of the Quảng Ngãi hospital helping a few while Canada was complicit in the death of thousands.

            Culhane explained that Canadian companies, and American subsidiaries operating in Canada, were producing and selling to the United States a wide range of goods that included ammunition, air craft engines, grenades, gun sites, TNT, generators, military vehicles, spare parts, and more. The war boosted by 54%, Canadian exports to the USA of oil, aluminum, and ores. For example, the majority of the nickel used by American plants building war planes, missiles, and armoured vehicles came from Canada.

            In September 1968, Culhane drew international media attention with a ten-day hunger strike on Parliament Hill. Among the politicians who stopped by to chat was Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s powerful minister of citizenship and immigration Jean Marchand. They were soon in a heated debate. Marchand snapped: “Do you want to be the one to tell 150,000 workers that they’re out of work if we discontinue producing war material for the U.S.A. under the defence contracts we hold with them?” Marchand had expressed the essence of the national conversation.

            On the fast’s last day, Trudeau invited Culhane to his office. As the prime minister left their brief meeting he whispered, “You have no idea the pressure I am under.” Culhane replied: “Why do you think I spent ten days out there, if not trying to bring on another set of pressures?”

            Culhane represented Canada’s anti-war efforts at a conference in Stockholm. In France, she met two North Vietnamese delegates to the Paris Peace Talks. In Britain, she was feted by the London press. Back home, she earned national attention by chaining herself to a House of Commons gallery chair and tossing leaflets on the unsuspecting parliamentarians below.

            On Christmas Eve 1969, Culhane established a camp at a church near Parliament Hill and told reporters that she would endure the sub-zero temperatures to bring attention to Canada’s complicity in the war. Trudeau came by in his limo and cracked the window a little but they only spoke past each other for a moment.

            Culhane refocussed her efforts on Canada’s involvement in the research, development, and sale of chemical weapons used in Vietnam. She spoke of helping to treat napalm victims at the Quảng Ngãi hospital who were wrapped so tightly in Vaseline and gauze that she could not tell if they were men or women, alive or dead. She spoke of napalm-doused children dying slow and agonizing deaths. Culhane explained that napalm was among the chemical agents manufactured in Canada and sold to the Pentagon for use in Vietnam.

            Another was Agent Orange. It was a defoliant sprayed by planes to clear jungle to better attack the enemy. The problem was that exposure caused cancers and genetic damage resulting in terribly ill or disfigured children. Agent Orange was manufactured in Elmira, Ontario and shipped to Vietnam.

            Culhane did not stop until the war stopped. She forced Canadians to admit their involvement in the Vietnam War. She forced a reckoning by asking the difficult question of whether it is immoral to profit from an immoral war.

(Culhane’s story is one of many in my 8th book, “The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.” It will be published in Canada and the USA by Knopf Penguin Random House on April 13, but can be pre-ordered now through Chapters, Amazon, or, as Stuart McLean used to say, sensible bookstores everywhere.)

The Canadian Who Could Have Stopped the Vietnam War

American president Johnson and Canadian prime minister Pearson lied. Their schedules did not, as they said, coincidentally have them at same New York hotel and they did not discuss issues concerning the Great Lakes. Johnson wanted something only Canada could deliver. Pearson offered a respected career diplomat, Blair Seaborn, to get it done. Lies had started the Vietnam War. And now another lie might end it.

            A month later, in June 1964, 40-year-old Seaborn was sitting uncomfortably hot in the back of a hulking, black, Russian-made car. The car cruised to a halt in front of Hanoi’s former French governor’s palace. Seaborn was shown to a huge ballroom, rich with Vietnamese art and antique furnishings. Within minutes, he was shaking hands with Pham Van Dong, the silver haired and handsome North Vietnamese prime minister.

            President Johnson had become convinced that the Vietnam War could not be won. He needed a way out before South Vietnam’s swirling chaos necessitated his sending American troops in. But he had no way to speak to North Vietnam’s leaders. He needed an emissary. He needed the Canadians.

            Speaking in French, Seaborn explained to Pham that the Americans were determined that the border that split Vietnam in two must be permanent along with the governments of North and South Vietnam. To this end, the United States had no desire to attack North Vietnam or overthrow its government. Nor, however, would it allow the Viet Cong-led insurgency to continue or permit the fall of South Vietnam’s government. The solution would be like Korea, with a permanent communist North and non-communist South.   

            Seaborn then presented a carrot and stick. If North Vietnam’s president Ho Chi Minh ended his support for the Viet Cong and pledged not to destabilize South Vietnam’s government, then the United States would leave. It would provide economic aid for North Vietnam. Seaborn added that Canada would augment American economic assistance. But, he warned, Johnson would defend his ally, if necessary, through a full-scale war that would be visited upon North Vietnamese cities. If such an escalation should occur, he said, there would be tremendous devastation and a colossal loss of life.

            With a soft but firm tone, Pham replied that a just solution involved four points: an immediate cessation of hostilities, a withdrawal of American personnel and military equipment; the people of the South being allowed to determine their own future with the Viet Cong a part of the negotiations; and Vietnam’s reunification.

            But there was more. Presenting a way for the United States to save face, Pham said that reunification need not happen immediately upon American withdrawal. Further, the new Vietnam would stay out of the Cold War by becoming like India; non-aligned and neutral. Pham conceded that none of this would be easy for the United States to accept but that his government would be patient. He advocated an all-party “round-table” negotiation to settle matters in a peaceful fashion.

            Pham then met Seaborn’s threat with one of his own. Leaning forward for emphasis, he said, “It’s impossible, quite impossible – excuse me for saying this – for you Westerners to understand the force of the people’s will to resist, and to continue. The struggle of our people exceeds the imagination. It has astonished us too.” In other words, if Johnson wanted war, bring it on. He’ll lose.

            Seaborn composed three long and detailed cables to Ottawa that were forwarded to the American State Department. He wrote, somewhat ominously, that North Vietnamese (DRVN) leaders, “are completely convinced that military action at any level is not, repeat not, going to bring success for the US and government forces in South Vietnam.” Ho Chi Minh and his goals of kicking the foreigners out and reuniting the country are tremendously popular in both the north and south. On the other hand, Seaborn explained, that there is little support among South Vietnam’s people for the corrupt South Vietnamese government. If American troops came, he insisted, they would quickly sink into a quagmire of a nationalist civil war that could last for years and cost millions of dollars and millions of lives with, he emphasized, little hope for success.

            Seaborn proposed a solution. Get out. Get out now. Take the deal that Pham had offered, declare peace with honour, and let the Vietnamese people determine their fate.

            Johnson was briefed on the Canadian’s secret mission and report. Seaborn and his advice were dismissed. In March 1965, 3,500 American marines landed in South Vietnam. They were soon fighting the kind of war Seaborn had foreseen with enemies everywhere and friends nowhere.

            Seaborn remained in Vietnam for a year as the leader of Canada’s increasingly impotent International Control Commission. He secretly met with Pham and other North Vietnam leaders five more times and wrote five more reports to Ottawa and Washington. Each was more dire in its assessment and blunter in its recommendations. American generals, politicians, and diplomats such as Henry Kissinger met with Seaborn when in Saigon to seek his counsel. He told them all the same thing. But for them and the White House, Seaborn’s advice contradicted the narrative they were weaving for the American people and so was ignored.

            Nearly a decade later. With millions of Vietnamese people and over 58,000 young Americans dead, and with America torn asunder by anti-war protests, President Nixon agreed to end the war. He called it peace with honour. The deal he signed was essentially Seaborn’s deal. The Vietnam War need not have happened. If only the Americans had listened to the Canadian.

(Seaborn’s story is one of many in my 8th book, “The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.” It will be published in Canada and the USA by Knopf Penguin Random House on April 13, but can be pre-ordered now through Chapters, Amazon, or, as Stuart McLean used to say, sensible bookstores everywhere.)

Sherwood Lett and Canada’s Vietnam War

Sherwood Lett learned Vietnam’s first lesson when he stepped from the plane: the heat’s a beast. The jet-lagged, 59-year-old Canadian girded himself and shook hands with those welcoming him to Saigon. After touring the bustling city, he met his International Control Commission staff and then was briefed by officials from India, Poland, Vietnam, Britain, and the United States. He asked polite but probing questions and, as was his custom, listened more than he spoke.

            Two days later, on October, 1954, Lett landed at Hanoi’s smaller, less chaotic, but equally steamy airport and was surprised by a far grander reception. The streets along his route to the Metropole Hotel fluttered with red banners, bunting, and flags. From the back seat of a long white car, Lett smiled and waved at crowds standing three-deep, cheering, clapping, and singing. He laughed and waved off his colleague’s embarrassment when at the hotel’s reception desk, he learned that the crowds had confused him with the Russian ambassador who was due to arrive on the next plane. The incident presented Vietnam’s second lesson: nothing is as it seems.

            Lett was born in Iroquois, Ontario but, since his father was a minister and his mother a supportive spouse, he and his six siblings were always moving. His broad range of interests and insatiable curiosity were evident at Vancouver’s McGill College (later the University of British Columbia) where he played the flute in the orchestra, served on the executive of the Literary Debating Society, was the lacrosse team’s goalie, and coached the women’s hockey team. He was fun and funny, empathetic, and well liked. Lett enlisted to serve in the First World War and survived the muddy calamity of Passchendaele. Promoted to Adjutant, his gallantry and courage at the Battle of Amiens earned him a Military Cross.

            After the war, he earned a Rhodes Scholarship and completed his law degree at Oxford University. Lett passed the bar in 1922 and five years later was a partner at Vancouver’s Davis and Company. He enjoyed a wide circle of friends, memberships in prestigious clubs, and served on the University of British Columbia Board of Governors, Senate, and for six years was Chancellor.

With Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Lett returned to military service at the Canadian Infantry Division Headquarters. After several promotions he was a Brigadier and in command of a regiment at the ill-fated Dieppe Raid, where shrapnel shattered his upper left arm. After two operations, and with his arm still in a sling, he became Deputy Chief of the General Staff in Ottawa but soon returned to England to command the 4th Infantry Brigade. Five months later, Lett led the 2nd Division’s post D-Day drive into France where, in an attack at a village on the Orne River, shrapnel tore into his right leg. Lett was decorated with the prestigious Commander of the British Empire, and then, medically discharged.

Lett’s military reputation and legal skills led to a number of federal government appointments. In the summer of 1954, Lett was happily married to Evelyn, the proud father of two adult daughters, and enjoying life as the senior partner in a thriving law firm where he specialized in corporate law. He then received a message from Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester Pearson about one more challenge. Lett accepted a one-year appointment as Canada’s chief commissioner on the International Control Commission. Weeks later, he was sweltering at Saigon’s airport.

Comprised of Canada, India, and Poland, the ICC’s job was to police the shaky peace in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos that, months before, had been brokered by the big powers at a convention in Geneva. Vietnam had been “temporarily” split at the 17th parallel. All French troops and equipment were to leave and communist troops and guerilla fighters – the Viet Cong – were to move to the north. Anyone who wished to move to either side the line was to be helped to go. The ICC was also to set up and supervise an election in July 1956 that would reunite Vietnam under a government.

Lett led 25 Canadian diplomats and 135 Canadian military personnel. They were scattered about in fixed and mobile positions working with their Indian and Polish counterparts. Lett quickly saw that the peace was a sham. Both the Northern and Southern governments were doing all they could to solidify their positions and weaken the other. The American CIA was running secret missions to help the South and confound the North including sabotaging Hanoi’s busses and poisoning water supplies while covertly moving weapons in as the French were moving theirs out. Lett and the ICC reported the transgressions but little was done in response.

Despite frustrations, the ICC oversaw the transfer of territory and cities from one power to the other. It intervened in many situations that saved lives. For example, thousands of Catholics who were persecuted in the North and kept from moving south, sometimes by having their children kidnapped, were helped by the ICC to move as they wished. But it was tough to referee a game when players acknowledged no rules.

Lett reported in cables home, many of which were shared with Washington, that Northern and Southern people overwhelmingly shared the goals of North Vietnam’s communist leader Ho Chi Minh: get the foreigners out, unify the country, and elect him as leader. Most Southern people despised South Vietnam’s corrupt leader, Ngo Dinh Diem. Lett argued that Ho was sure to win the election. The Americans and Diem, Lett warned, were moving to cancel it. If that happened, he said, a nationalist, civil war would begin and even if the Americans intervened the North would eventually win. Lett implored Pearson to pressure American president Eisenhower to let the election happen, regardless of the inevitable result. Canadian officials said nothing, and quietly supported the Americans. The world watched as communists insisted on a democratic election and the democratic west refused to let it happen.

Lett returned to his family and thriving Vancouver law practice. When the election was cancelled and just a few years later Vietnam fell into a tragic quagmire, Lett took no satisfaction in having been right. Canada’s involvement in the Vietnam War and the war’s influence in Canada’s development had just begun.

(Lett’s story is one of many in my 8th book, “The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.” It will be published in Canada and the USA by Knopf Penguin Random House on April 13, but can be pre-ordered now through Chapters, Amazon, or, as Stuart McLean used to say, sensible bookstores everywhere.)

Haida: Service and Sacrifice

Part of my growing up in southern Ontario meant that summer’s end came with an annual trip to Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition. A history geek even then, I always insisted on a romp in Haida, the old Canadian naval destroyer docked nearby. It was fun to run and play like we would never let kids do now but it was not until much later that I understood what the old relic really meant.

In 1943, he Royal Canadian Navy’s mission broadened from convoy escorting and submarine hunting and so its fleet grew to include twelve new Tribal-class destroyers. Among them was HMCS Haida and her sister ship HMCS Athabaskan.

            Harry DeWolf was placed in command of Haida and her 275-man crew in August 1943. In April 1944, in preparation for D-Day that was originally slated for late May, Haida and Athabaskan were conducting sweeps of the Brittany coast. One dark, moonless night, they encountered three German destroyers. Haida and Athabaskan pursued and sank one but then a torpedo tore into Athabaskan. Already listing, there was a second thundering explosion before she quickly vanished beneath the waves.  

            Still fighting, Haida ran a German destroyer onto rocks and shelled it until it was engulfed in flames. The third enemy destroyer disappeared into the black night. DeWolf ordered Haida to return to rescue his countrymen. With flames in the dark, oily water amid wounded men in lifeboats or desperately holding anything that would float, Haida’s crew methodically pulled shivering, exhausted survivors aboard. She launched lifeboats, Carley floats, and a cutter. Finally, with dawn breaking but men still screaming for help, DeWolf made the agonizing decision to leave, knowing that daylight would bring Nazi patrols and the possibility of losing everyone. Haida saved 44 men from capture or death. The cutter made its way back to England with another six rescued Athabaskan crew and three Haida crewmen.

            By the war’s end, Haida had become the Royal Canadian Navy’s most deadly ship. It had sunk a minesweeper, a submarine, two German destroyers, and 14 other enemy ships. Every sinking was recorded with a notch cut in the ship’s bridge rail. Later promoted to vice-admiral, DeWolf would become Canada’s most decorated Second World War naval officer.

            With the onset of the Korean War in June 1950, Haida was refit with new weapons and an improved communication system. She escorted supply and troop ships, patrolled ports, and its big guns set the sky on fire in attacking trains and other enemy shipping. She was fired on twice by shore batteries and both times destroyed her assailants.

            Later, Cold War fear of Soviet naval activity along the Canadian and American coasts had Haida serving as a submarine patrol ship. In April 1963, however, her hull was deemed too old and damaged to be repaired and so Haida was towed to a Quebec shipyard and decommissioned.  

            Peter Ward learned of plans to scrap Haida. He had served nine years in the navy, retiring as a Lieutenant. His father, Leslie, had been among those who had died in the Athabaskan tragedy. In tribute to his father, and with respect for naval tradition, Ward gathered like-minded partners to save Haida. They shared talents and connections, raised money, and convinced the federal government to sell them Haida for only $20,000.

            Ward assembled a skeleton 18-man crew to handle Haida while tugs slowly brought her from Sorel, Quebec to Toronto. At one point, fog stopped progress near Brockville. The next morning, small pleasure boats pulled alongside wondering what a world-class destroyer was up to. With no navigation equipment aboard and using only a compass and an old Esso gas station map, Commander Bill Wilson leaned over the rail and asked the curious onlookers where they were.

(Photo: Parks Canada)

            Haida arrived at Toronto harbour on August 25, 1964. Boats and ships of every description offered a rollicking greeting. The city’s fireboat spewed towering jets of water into the crystal blue sky. Among the crowd watching from shore was Haida’s former commander Vice-Admiral DeWolf.

            Haida found a home at the York Street pier and then, in 1970, at Ontario Place, near the CNE grounds. She became a training ship for the Royal Canadian Sea Cadets and a popular tourist attraction; clambered upon by kids, like me, who were just a little younger than the men who had served her so long ago and so well.

            In 1984, Haida became a Canadian National Historic Site and, in 2002, was taken over by Parks Canada. After significant repairs to her hull, she was moved to Pier 9 in Hamilton, Ontario. In November 2009, HRH Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, officially opened the Motor Cutter Exhibit at HMCS Haida. It displays the cutter that had rescued Athabaskan crewmen back in 1944. Ward was there that day as was Vice-Admiral DeWolf’s son, Jim, standing proudly in the captain’s cabin representing his father.

            War is a tragedy. But it is a part of the grand and never-ending story that defines who we are. Haida is part of that story. So are those who saved Haida and the young men who served us by serving her. Today, as we sacrifice for others with masks and staying home, let’s recall Haida and what real sacrifice looks like.

(If you enjoyed this article, please share it with others on Facebook or your social media of choice and consider checking my other work at http://www.johnboyko.com)

Take the O’Hare Challenge

Naming things is tricky. Consider Batman Airport in Turkey, Spain’s Moron Airport, Mafia Airport in Tanzania, and Australia’s Useless Loop Airport. Many airports are named for historical people and, like the many oddly named airports around the world, they become accepted and used as shorthand. People flying out of southern Ontario go to Pearson like New Yorkers head to JFK or LaGuardia. We seldom think about the people whose names roll off our tongues. But maybe we should.

Among the more fascinating of the people who have become airports is Edward O’Hare, who we know from Chicago’s airport. Lieutenant Commander O’Hare, whom everyone called Butch, was a Second World War navy fighter pilot. On February 20, 1942, he and his squadron left the aircraft carrier Lexington in the South Pacific. Minutes later he noted a problem with the fuel in his Grumman F6F Hellcat. He needed to disengage and return to the ship. Heading back alone he spotted a formation of nine Japanese fighter planes heading toward the American fleet. There was no way he could engage them all and would run out of fuel if he tried. But he was the fleet’s only defence.

He tore into the Japanese planes. His 50-calibre rifles ripped into plane after plane as he banked and flew through them again and then again. After several attacks his ammunition was spent. He banked and flew through them yet again, this time trying to clip their tails or wings. The Japanese became disorganized and scattered. Finally, they turned and were gone. O’Hare had downed five enemy planes and damaged more.

O’Hare made it to Lexington on fumes. He reported what had happened with his onboard cameras having captured the action. He became the American Navy’s first ace. He was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He refused an offer to return home and continued to serve. A year later, O’Hare was killed in an aerial battle. He was 29.

In 1945, the United States Navy renamed a destroyer the USS O’Hare. Four years later, Chicago’s Orchard Depot Airport was renamed the O’Hare International Airport. His skill, courage, and patriotic devotion to duty was such that there was widespread support for the renaming. A statue of O’Hare stands between the first and second terminal. But there’s a twist to the story.

O’Hare’s was born in St. Louis. When his parents divorced, he stayed with his mother and two sisters while his father, Edward, moved to Chicago. His father was a lawyer. Fast Eddie, as he was called, had only one client. His tireless work saved his client from many cases that in the hands of a less skilled attorney would have seen the client jailed. But for years Eddie kept him free and in business. Finally, Eddie had enough and gave the treasury department information that led them to seek a new way of bringing his client to justice. Eight years after his client was jailed, Eddie was killed in a hail of machine gun fire on a Chicago street corner. Fast Eddie’s client was Al Capone.

So Butch O’Hare had never lived in Chicago. His father had enabled years of Chicago violence and crime. And yet Chicago’s airport, America’s busiest, is named O’Hare? Should cancel culture raise its head and cancel O’Hare?

My thought? So what? Butch deserves it. Chicago deserves it. The O’Hare International Airport is well named. I can’t wait for my next time through to seek out O’Hare’s statue and doff my cap.

(If you enjoyed this article, please share it with friends on Facebook or your social media of choice and consider checking out my other work at johnboyko.com)

Could a “Trump” Insurrection Happen in Canada?

Last week, enough Republican Senators feared their base to acquit an obviously guilty Donald Trump. The January 6 horror and impeachment debacle invite two questions. For Americans: Was this the end of something or the beginning of something? For Canadians: Could a Trump-like insurrection happen here? We’ll see what happens south of the border but the short answer for Canadians is no; for three reasons.

(Photo: Seattle Times)

First, our political structure is different. In the United States, a federal election is run by each state and territory according to unique rules and with many blatantly partisan state officials brazenly supressing the other party’s vote. Elections Canada, on the other hand, is an independent, non-partisan agency that runs our federal elections. It ensures free and fair elections through many means, among the most important of which is enforcing campaign spending limits. Further, we don’t vote directly for our head of government. The only people who voted for Justin Trudeau were the good people of Papineau in Montreal. It is, therefore, a lot tougher to initiate a Trump-like big lie about a stolen election because it is a lot tougher to question Canadian election results.

Further, Canada’s executive is not separate from but a part of our legislature. As a result, if a prime minister began exhibiting corrupt or wonky behaviour he would be eviscerated in the House day after day. Dwindling support would leave a minority government leader on his ear. Even in a majority situation, a prime minister’s party would eventually turn against him. Ask Sir John. In both cases, a prime minister would be gone long before he became Trumpian – or Nixonian for that matter.

Second, Canada’s political culture is different. Canada is founded upon what political philosopher Gad Horowitz called a Tory Touch. That is, while the United States celebrates the rugged individual and a visceral distrust in government, since before Confederation, Canadians have been guided by an embrace of community, trust in government, and respect for authority. While Horowitz’s 1965 idea has been challenged, the stubborn persistence of its validity can be seen in the national consensus and all-party support for our social welfare state. That endorsement is reflected most clearly in our acceptance of the social contract that has us paying taxes to allow universal health care. The Tory Touch can also be seen in the vast majority of Canadians grudgingly accepting the measures taken to combat COVID-19. We wince as Americans, absent the Tory Touch, rip themselves up over health care and masks.

Finally, Canada’s media is different. Robert Murdoch has thankfully ignored us while his Fox News created an alternate universe for too many Americans. His viewers/adherents truly believe the big lie whether it’s that Obama is Kenyan, Clinton ran a child-porn ring from a pizzeria, or Trump won last November. The closest Canada came to slipping into the swamp of alternate facts was with the 2011 launch of the Sun News Network. Its hard-right editorial stance aped Fox in that ideology trumped truth and nuance was attacked as elitism. Perhaps because of the Tory Touch, Sun News failed to find an audience and died in 2015. Rebel News rose from Sun’s corpse but its coverage of American racist violence and then the Quebec City mosque shooting led sponsors to flee and all but its most fervent followers to leave the echo chamber.

Canada’s structure, culture, and media render a Donald Trump and so a Trump insurrection less likely in Canada – but not impossible. Those who can be convinced of horrible things can be led to do horrible acts and so Canadians must be vigilante. We must insulate ourselves from social media conspiracy theories and anti-intellectualism. We must reject rampant partisanship and politicians who ignore or deny complexity while appealing to our base instincts. We must refuse to fear “the other” whether that be someone of a different race, religion, or political point of view. We must continually strive to be what we like to say we are.

(If you enjoyed this article, please share it with others and consider checking my other work at johnboyko.com)

The French Challenge

It’s wrong. I live in a bilingual country. I have written books and newspaper columns and yapped across the country one way or another about Canada’s history and politics and yet I don’t speak French. It’s also embarrassing. It’s the embarrassment that finally moved me to action.

Our daughter and two grandchildren live close by and have made up our tiny bubble since the pandemic began. When Ontario’s schools did not reopen after Christmas, my wife and I offered to help our daughter continue to work from home by having our grandchildren at our place every day to support them through their online learning. It was much harder than we anticipated. The grade 7 and kindergarten teachers did their best to keep them engaged while providing lots of asynchronous activities and assignments. The kids are fun and polite but keeping up with them was taxing.

The real problem was that both are in French immersion. My wife speaks French moderately well. But first thing Monday morning I was reminded of having stupidly quit French after earning a dismal mark in Grade 9. I was stuck asking a five-year-old if she could please translate for me so I could help her to properly draw the penguin.

By the end of the first day my decision was made. I want to speak with my grandchildren. I need to learn French. But how? Sorry, comment?

I found You Tube ripe with people willing to teach me French. After dismissing a few intense men and a far too chirpy millennial, I chose Alexa. She’s great. Alexa offers short lessons that move so slowly that even I can follow along. She assumes I know nothing which, sadly, is true. Alexa is fun because she seems to edit nothing so you see her flub a line, laugh, and try it again. It makes her human while allowing me license to mess up.

(Photo: tinytap.it)

I have always admired people who speak more than one language. My first weeks of lessons had me admiring them more. Who knew, for instance, that in speaking French I have to know if a bank or banana are masculine or feminine? Who decides such things? Is there a committee somewhere in Paris? Has the women’s movement or Me Too changed any of its decisions? And what about giving me a reliable rule so I have at least a fighting chance of remembering – such as if a word ends with an “e” then it’s feminine. But, of course, that would be too easy. It only works about 75% of the time. It’s like the English “i” before “e” spelling rule that has so many exceptions it’s a wonder anyone ever noticed the pattern in the first place.

And who decided that the French language would have four distinct ways of saying something as simple as, for example, the word “the?” And who decided that a French speaker can sometimes throw a “t” between words that means nothing but somehow someone decided makes the sentence sound better? I will confess to asking Alexa some rather pointed questions. But she’s patient. When she says this next part may be little tricky, it means that I will be devoting the rest of the day wrestling with its baffling contradictions. I desperately try to understand rather than memorize. Alexa forgives me…I think.

I’m learning slowly. The kids are back at school now and so I’ve got more time with Alexa. Both kids giggle at my pronunciations and tell me when I say something that makes no sense at all. They do their best to help. It’s actually fun that they get to teach me something that, we all know, they will always be better at than me. Wish me luck. Sorry, souhaite moi bonne chance.

(If you enjoyed this article, please share it with others and check out my other work at johnboyko.com)

William Pearly Oliver Understood

February is Black History month. It’s a good thing. It will be an even better thing when we no longer need it. William Pearly Oliver understood that.

Oliver was descended from Virginia slaves. They were brought to Nova Scotia after the War of 1812 when slavery was still legal in the British colony. He was born in Wolfville in 1912. His father was Acadia University’s Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds. As the only Black kid in town, he befriended those who offered friendship and fought those who called him n—er. Racism was often subtle – he would not be invited to some people’s homes and was barred from some parties. It was sometimes blatant. For example, he was captain of his high school hockey team but one afternoon a visiting team refused to play if he suited up.

As an Acadia student, he made the track team but found he was unable to stay with his teammates in segregated hotels or eat with them in segregated restaurants. He turned his anger and shame to his studies and in 1934 earned his Bachelor of Arts and, a year later, his Bachelor of Divinity degree. Despite Blacks having lived in Nova Scotia for over 200 years, Oliver was only the third to graduate from university.

Oliver met and married Pearleen. She had wanted to become a nurse but Blacks were not allowed to enter the program in Nova Scotia. That painful denial led to her becoming an influential speaker and writer, crusading for racial equality. They raised five sons.

Active Preacher

In 1937, Oliver began a 25-year ministry at Halifax’s Cornwallis Street Church; the only Black church completely owned and operated by its congregation. Halifax was a segregated city. Wolfville had taught Oliver that racism exists. Halifax taught him its fury.

His Bachelor of Divinity thesis argued that Canada’s economic structure was not meeting its people’s needs. Jesus, he wrote, demanded a just distribution of wealth and opportunity. Halifax proved the wisdom of his belief that without self-pride, economic opportunity, and property ownership, there could be no social advancement or racial justice.

In 1942 he became the Canadian army’s only African Canadian chaplain. Only allowed to speak with African Canadian troops, he offered hope to young men moving through Halifax to the overseas war. After the war, Oliver became the founding chair of the African United Baptist Association’s Urban and Rural Life Committee. The committee helped those in the Black community to become more self-sufficient and to see the need to look beyond spiritual matters to improve their material stability. He was also one of the founding members of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People that helped organize self-improvement efforts and offer legal assistance for those fighting in a system stacked against them. In 1947, Oliver was instrumental in organizing support for Viola Desmond who fought segregation by refusing to leave her seat in Halifax’s Roseland Theatre – 8 years before Rosa Parks showed similar courage on a Montgomery Bus.

The Nova Scotia education ministry appointed him as its regional representative in charge of promoting adult education in the Black community. Through the church, Oliver fundraised an impressive $45,000 to build an education and community centre that opened in 1957. It offered young people a place to gather on evenings and weekends to avoid the temptations of drugs, crime, and alcohol and the encouragement to stay in school.

His efforts led to his message being heard beyond Halifax. As president of the Maritime United Baptist Convention he spoke at communities throughout Halifax, Ontario, Quebec, and the New England states. He preached his message that education, jobs, property, and a feeling of self-worth were essential to allowing African Canadians and Americans to break the chains of racism and discrimination.

Community Organizer

In 1962 he left the Cornwallis Street Church to work full time as an adult educator and community organizer. He articulated six goals for the Black community: improved health; better homes; better farms; improved schools; more jobs; and better use of municipal and provincial agencies. Only in pursuing all six, he argued, could Jim Crow be attacked and racial and social justice be advanced. He said that changing laws is important but, “You don’t give a man dignity through legislation. The second emancipation must be in terms of black-realization.”

Oliver accepted the help of well-meaning white liberals but understood the danger of that help. Their good intentions, he argued, too often ends with African Canadians failing to lead themselves from the negative effects of systemic racism. White liberal paternalism, he said, was as much the enemy as racism itself.

In November 1968, Oliver chaired a meeting in which leaders from Nova Scotia’s Black Community met with Stokely Carmichael of the American Black Panther organization. They agreed on problems and goals but Oliver rejected Black Panther tactics. From the meeting came the Black United Front. Led by Oliver, the BUF consulted broadly then presented recommendations to provincial and federal leaders. It asked for support to promote programs in schools and communities to teach African Canadian history and culture; build Black-owned businesses; and improve Black housing, education, and job opportunities.

Ottawa granted $470,000 to the BUF to pursue its mandate. Minister of Health and Welfare John Munro said he wanted the BUF to “raise hell” with the government to improve the lives of African Canadians throughout the country. Oliver accepted the challenge, travelling widely to find and inspire new Black leaders while lobbying the federal government for more support and legislative changes. Throughout the early 1970s, the BUF became an umbrella under which many small community organizations flourished.

In 1972, Oliver presented the idea of a Black Cultural Centre. It would, he said, present Black history and cultural achievements to the Black and White communities and thereby create better understanding among them while inspiring Blacks to build upon their pride. As the chair of the steering committee, Oliver lobbied the Nova Scotia and federal governments and Black leaders. In 1983, the Black Cultural Centre opened on Halifax’s Cherry Brook Road. It boasted a museum, research library, auditorium, and workshop rooms. It thrives today, offering permanent and travelling exhibits, school and community tours, and concerts and plays.

Oliver died in 1989 at age 77. He had been honoured with many awards including the Order of Canada. His legacy lives on through the Black Cultural Centre and in the minds of every child – Black and White – who believes that Black history is Canadian history and that racism has no place in our country or our hearts.

(If you enjoyed this article, please send it to others through Facebook or your social media of choice and consider checking out my other work at johnboyko.com)

The Pandemic Has Changed Nothing

Time walks but change leaps. The current pandemic is not changing anything as much as it’s accelerating changes that were already in motion.

            Consider the primary engine of our capitalist society: our buying stuff. In 2010 we purchased 5% of our consumer goods online. Ten years later, just before the first big shut down, we were buying just 16% of consumer goods online. Then, in only two months, that figure leapt to 27%. By October, despite stores having been reopened since the summer, 70% of Canadians reported that they would be buying Christmas gifts online. When stores reopen after the final wave’s lockdown they had better have shifted to online sales because the slow creep toward shopping through our laptops rather than their front doors will have leapt forward to such a degree that it will not slip completely back.

            Companies that enjoyed a decade of change in just a few weeks had been around for a long while and growing slowly. Apple, for instance, had taken over 40 years to reach a valuation of one billion dollars. When the world locked up in March, Apple leapt to 2 billion in the next five months.

            Meanwhile, as American federal reserve chair Alan Greenspan once famously observed, “You can only see who has been swimming naked when the tide goes out.”  Lots of companies had been bare and barely hanging on with massive debt and failing business models. The virus accelerated their demise. Companies that have declared bankruptcy since the pandemic arrived include J. Crew, JC Penney, Cirque du Soleil, Brooks Brothers, Hertz, Gold’s Gym, Briggs & Stratton, Reitmans, and that company that stole an afternoon of my life that I will never get back – Chuck E. Cheese. The world’s oldest multinational corporation, the Hudson’s Bay Company, is teetering. They all could have survived longer, dog paddling away in their birthday suits, but the pandemic accelerated their drowning.

            The most consequential change that COVID accelerated has been our conception of the role of government. The one-two punch of the Depression and Second World War fundamentally altered how we perceived government’s role. The twin crises led the overwhelming majority of us to support the idea that government’s job was to balance the playing field to give us all a shot at fulfilling our potential. Its new mandate included keeping us all healthy, helping us when we became college and university students, new parents, unemployed, sick, or old. We believed we were all of the same community and that paying taxes was our shared responsibility.

            By the late 1970s, the Vietnam War, OPEC Oil crisis, and runaway inflation seemed to show that government was unable to fix all problems and was causing others. That notion, coupled with the fading memory of the Depression and WWII, led to a new concept of government. In 1981, president Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Britain’s Thatcher and Canada’s Mulroney rode the wave of anti-government sentiment. A generation saw governments’ reach shrink, publicly-owned assets sold, and programs dismantled. Taxes, we were now told, were not a way to take collective action and the price for living in a civilized society but robbery. They were cut because individual action was touted as more efficient that collective action and because less government revenue would “starve the beast” and force a further retrenchment of its power.

            But then the pandemic happened. All governments made mistakes as they learned more about the virus but all at least tried to do something. The shameful incompetence of the American government demonstrated the valiant, science-based efforts of others and the need for calm, experienced, honest and able leadership.

            Political leaders who maintained self-serving partisanship were laughed at, scorned, and when the people had a chance – most notably in the United States – sent packing.  Politicians who insisted on continuing to divide us through dangerous rhetoric appealing to the basest among us were rejected such as Mr. Sloan who was thrown from the Conservative Party and Alberta’s Mr. Kenney who has seen support plummet.

            September 11 and the 2008 Great Recession had been slowly swinging the pendulum back toward a belief in the positive power of government. The pandemic has accelerated that change so that we find ourselves today where we may have been a decade from now. Pity the politician who now fails to see that there is a new appetite for tackling big problems through bold government action. We all saw the world quickly clean itself from the skies of Mumbai to the canals of Venice and we are now ready to tackle the existential crisis of our generation and fight climate change. We are also now ready to fight the long festering embarrassments of income inequality and racial injustice. We are ready to debate, compromise, and move in collective action with our votes and tax dollars.

            The pandemic has put us into an age akin to the post-Depression, post-WWII era when we fought and survived together and due to the fight became steeled to fight together some more for what was right. Faith in government always swings to and fro and the change back toward a faith in government was coming. It’s now here. Let’s see if, together, we can do some good.

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