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.

(If you enjoyed this article, please send it to others through your social media of choice.)

The Only Question that Matters in a Coup

Let’s be clear, last week there was an attempted coup d’état in Washington. The success of any sudden, violent, and illegal bid to seize power from a legally established government depends upon the veracity of coup leaders and the reaction of the media and general population. Of far more importance, however, is the only question that really matters. When it all goes down, which way will the army point its guns?

            Let’s consider the 1991 attempted coup in Moscow. Early in the morning on August 19, eight extreme right-wing, hard-line communist leaders declared that USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev was ill and that they were assuming power. They pledged to reverse Gorbachev’s reformist policies of Glasnost and Perestroika that were celebrated in the West but were rocking the Soviet economy and, in their eyes, emasculating the state and empire. Coup leaders were ensconced in the Russian Federation State House; a massive building popularly dubbed the White House. They ordered generals to surround the building with soldiers, tanks, and other armoured vehicles to protect them and the building from a rapidly assembling anti-coup crowd. One wrong move, one mistake, one thrown rock or errant shot would spark a massacre.

            Then, something astounding happened.

            Pro-democracy, pro-capitalism Russian President Boris Yeltsin arrived on the scene at 9:00. With him was Russian Prime Minister Silayev and Soviet Chairman Khasbulatov. They walked to the line and, risking being stopped or shot, clamboured atop a tank. Yeltsin shouted to soldiers and the crowd, something that could have been said in Washington last Wednesday:

“We are dealing with a rightist, reactionary, anti-constitutional coup. Despite all the difficulties and severe trials being experienced by the people, the democratic process in the country is acquiring an increasingly broad sweep and an irreversible character…These developments gave rise to angry reactionary forces, pushed them to irresponsible and adventurist attempts to solve the most complicated political and economic problems by methods of force…We appeal to the citizens of Russia to give a fitting rebuff to the putschists and demand a return to the country’s normal constitutional development.”

(Photo: BBC)

            People moved forward toward the lines of soldiers and tanks. The guns remained silent. Citizens and soldiers, most of them the same and age and background, shook hands, and spoke with each other. Many shared food and tea.

            Over the next two days, the coup leaders dug in. More troops arrived. More people arrived too, asking that the soldiers continue to join them in opposing the coup and supporting the country’s nascent democracy. Yeltsin called for a national strike. Major Sergei Yevdokimov was the first to publicly state that he would not allow his battalion to cause bloodshed. Others followed his lead.

            Believing the military would no longer obey them, coup leaders ordered garbage trucks and delivery vehicles to block the crowd’s access to a White House tunnel to allow guards to enter. Those near the tunnel moved to stop the action and three people were killed. The incident led Minister of Defence Yazov to order the troops protecting the White House to stand down and leave Moscow. And, cheered by the crowd, they left. The coup was over. Gorbachev returned to Moscow.

            The lesson is clear. Every coup is like Moscow in August 1991: its success depends upon which way the military decides to point its guns. In Washington last week, guards, police, and eventually the national guard pointed their guns at those attempting to overthrow the democratic process and stop the constitutionally predetermined actions of America’s legally-elected representatives. The direction of the guns denied the wishes of the mob, a mad president, and his shrinking cadre of enablers. For now.

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

Why Do We Believe Conspiracy Theories?

Did you know that NASA faked the moon landing and Elvis faked his death? Did you know that Hillary Clinton ran a child pornography ring out of a pizzeria or that Bill Gates engineered the current pandemic so that people could be implanted with a tracking device? These and myriad other conspiracy theories swirl around us.

            Conspiracy theories are not new, they spread quickly, and they are stubbornly persistent. Consider that in the year 64AD, a week of wind and heat allowed a small fire to grow to an inferno that flattened Rome. Emperor Nero had been away. He returned to mobs calling for his head because, apparently, he had orchestrated the fire to rebuild the city according to his plan. People also insisted that rather than stopping the blaze, he had watched from a window while nonchalantly playing his fiddle. Neither was true but both lies were accepted even before the flames had subsided. Nearly two thousand years later, Nero’s fiddling remains our metaphor of an uncaring leader.

            To understand the Rome fire and all other conspiracy theories we must concede that in terms of biological and evolutionary time, we are the Romans. We know more stuff and enjoy more technology but we’re no smarter than them because our brains are no more developed. We are just a susceptible to a good conspiracy theory now as they were then.         

            According to clinical phycologist Jade Wu, we and the Romans have three fundamental needs. First, we need to understand. Sometimes things are so complex that it is easier to accept a simple explanation rather than admit to no explanation or that it is beyond our capacity to understand. Second, we need to feel in control. A conspiracy theory offers comfort to those buffeted by forces beyond their ability to influence or direct. Finally, we need to feel good about ourselves. It is easier to blame others than accept responsibility for bad decisions or things not going as we wished.

            While we are all subject to these deep-seated psychological needs, social psychologist Karen Douglas argues that some of us are more susceptible than others to the lure of conspiracy theories. You are more likely to believe conspiracy theories if you are narcissistic, have poor critical thinking skills, crave intellectual certainty, are intellectually incurious, or feel anxious or depressed. People with one or more of these characteristics are more likely to seek people, social media, and news sources that merely confirm their already cemented biases and beliefs. Conspiracy theories find fertile ground in echo chambers that confirm already entrenched beliefs that, for example, all immigrants are dangerous, all politicians lie, all corporations are evil, the other political party is always corrupt, or that no one as inconsequential as Lee Harvey Oswald could have changed the course of history with a couple of lucky shots that took down someone as powerful as President Kennedy.

            Conversely, of course, if you exhibit the opposite of all or most of those traits then you are more likely to fulfill your need for understanding, control, and self-esteem by digging deeper, seeking nuance, trusting expertise, and considering information’s sources. You are more likely to seek information that broadens perspective and challenges assumptions. You are less likely to buy a conspiracy theory if you read a lot and rather enjoy the cognitive dissonance sparked by new ideas and nuance and feel safer, more in control, and better about yourself due to searching for a deeper understanding of complex issues and ideas.  

            All this means that the only defence we have against conspiracy theories is a willingness to undertake the hard work of critical thinking and maintaining a healthy skepticism. The Romans believed the Nero stories long before there was Facebook, Twitter, or Fox News. People will believe new conspiracy theories long after those and other purveyors of lies are as dead as the Roman Empire. Let us be among those willing to do the real work of seeking the real truth.

An Old Image and New Inspiration

A photograph can change our mind. It can change a lot of minds.

Let’s consider an example. In January 1968, the United States had been actively engaged in the Vietnam War for three and a half years. (Canada was involved too but that story is for another day.) Polls at the time indicated that a majority of Americans supported President Johnson’s efforts in Vietnam. Then came the Tet Offensive. In one day, North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong guerillas captured all or most of every South Vietnamese city. In an action that took only five seconds, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnam’s national police chief, casually approached a Viet Cong suspect who was being held on the street. Loan fired his pistol into the suspect’s right temple, killing him instantly.

Photographer Eddie Adams captured the moment of the bullet’s impact. The photograph appeared on television and in newspapers around the world and across America. It changed minds. Subsequent polls indicated a significant uptick in Americans opposing the war. Within months, Johnson announced that he would not seek a second term and all presidential candidates campaigned on ending the war.

Many other photographs have had similar effects. I am betting you can easily picture the lone protester standing before the line of tanks in Tiananmen Square, the determined look on Terry Fox with the Trans-Canada Highway stretching forever behind him, and the red fireball of the second plane hitting the World Trade Centre. They touched our hearts and changed our minds. But there is one in particular that affected us then and that we need again to weave its magic.

On Christmas Eve in 1968, NASA astronaut William Anders peered out a small hatch window as his Apollo 8 spacecraft was beginning its fourth of ten orbits around the moon. He was gobsmacked. Grabbing his Hasselblad camera, Anders floated weightlessly to another window for a better view and snapped an image of the earth rising over the moon’s gray wasteland, reflecting sunlight in brilliant blue against the blackness of space.

(Photo: NASA)

NASA released the photograph on December 30. It was placed on a stamp and was seen in newspapers and magazines. The year had been horrendous. Americans had endured more of their children returning dead or damaged from a war in which fewer believed, a presidential election that had seen more of their children beaten by Chicago police, race riots that had set cities ablaze, and Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinated. Canadians suffered widening generational, gender, and racial divisions, bombs killing innocents in Quebec, and domestic terrorists throwing rocks at their prime minister. Tanks rolled in Czechoslovakia and tear gas scattered protesters in Paris, London, and Berlin.

And then, for a moment, with that terrible year in which it looked like the centre would not hold nearly over, everyone paused before the power of the picture of the little blue ball in space. The earth hung there without the invisible borderlines for which so many lives had been sacrificed. For a moment, it looked like we were not divided by nationhood, race, gender, religion, or the many other social constructs invented to define us and others. It looked like we were one. The picture also spurred the nascent environment movement, informed by the revolutionary concept that we are one people on one planet. Anders said that like millions of others the photograph made him realize, “This is the only home we have and yet we are busy shooting at each other, threatening nuclear war, and wearing suicide vests.”

If the year 1968 was terrible, 2020 is worse. But in tragedy there is hope. Maybe the global pandemic urges us to recall what the photograph had to say so many years ago – we are all in this together. The vaccines are here but none of us will be safe until all of us are safe – all of us; everywhere. Perhaps the photograph asks us to consider that while each country must commit to combatting climate change that none will be successful until we all are successful. Further, as we emerge from our isolation and all the stores reopen, maybe the photograph will remind us that we make and buy too much unnecessary stuff because it eventually all ends up getting thrown away and there really is no away.

The pandemic, climate change, and rampant, empty consumerism remind us that mother nature is always the last at bat. And even scarier is that mother earth does not need saving. If we fall to another pandemic, ignore the changing climate, and succumb to shopping as a leisure activity to fill holes in our souls then the earth will be just fine. We, of course, will be gone – victims of our greed and stupidity; our refusal to read obvious signs; and our stubborn refusal to heed the potent message of William Anders’ photograph.

Let’s look at the picture again. Let’s really look at it this time. Hopefully, with so much at stake and a better future to be forged from the current madness we’ll not just see it but hear it.

(If you enjoyed this article, please share it with a friend on Facebook or another social media vehicle.)

One Pandemic – Three Ideas

A crisis is a cruel teacher. It offers the test first and then its lessons. Among COVID’s lessons is the potency of three ideas too often misconstrued, dismissed, or ignored.  

(Image: BreakthroughMarketing)

Marx was right. It’s all about class. Nineteenth century German political philosopher Karl Marx argued that we either own the means through which stuff and services are produced or work for those who do. Our relationship to our society and each other, he wrote, is based on where we are within the layers of wealth and work.

            Nearly 160,000 small businesses are at risk of going bust as soul-crushing unemployment continues to drain savings and hope. Meanwhile, since the pandemic began, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has seen his net worth rise by $24 billion. Identifying Ontario’s COVID hotspot as Toronto is a sad lie. Rosedale is fine. Jane Finch is suffering.

            COVID’s infection rate among people earning more than $150,000 a year is 42 per 100,000. Among those making under $30,000 it is 223. These numbers will persist as many leave small, multi-generational apartments and ride a crowded bus to a minimum wage job while others order yoga pants online to enjoy a stretch while taking a break from their ergonomically designed chair in their nicely appointed home office. Women and racial minorities have suffered inordinate hardships but Marx would point to many middle- and upper-class women and people of colour doing just fine thank you.

            Maslow was right. Abram Maslow was a 20th century American psychologist who argued that we all strive to ascend a hierarchy of needs. We begin by seeking adequate food, drink, and shelter. We are then able to pursue safety, and then love and belonging, followed by self-esteem, and, finally, a feeling of self-fulfillment that he called self-actualization. COVID showed us that no matter where we are on the hierarchy, we can quickly slide back down. I live in what city-centric people call cottage country. In the pandemic’s early days, I heard neighbours insist that our one and only grocery store should deny admittance to non-residents – the cottagers – who were stocking up on our food and leaving us short.

            Over 50% of Canadians report that COVID is battering their sense of self-worth and has appreciably worsened their mental health. Alcohol and drug use is increasing along with family violence, fear, and anxiety. Separation from friends and family is eroding feelings of love and belonging. Televised scenes of rioting in American streets, narcissistic madness in the White House, and COVID’s ruthless second wave is straining our sense of safety. Employers used to think that employees would be less efficient but happier working from home but it ends up that the opposite is true. It’s tough to seek self-actualization while home schooling the kids, enduring yet another damned Zoom meeting, missing friends, and hoping that maybe the family can get together next Christmas.

            Macdonald was right. The race-based policies of our first prime minister and primary founder Sir John A. Macdonald were inexcusable. But let’s shelve that fact for now to recall that his leadership placed Canada’s dominant power with the federal government. Only the federal government, he said and so the constitution now deems, has the fiscal capacity and political legitimacy to respond nationally to a national crisis. Its Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) helped nearly 9 million of us to stay home and safe. It is now transitioning to a more flexible Employment Insurance program. The federal government shut the borders and signed contracts with those who will provide vaccines. Premiers worked hard within their jurisdictions while effusively praising the federal government’s invaluable support and initiatives. We need only look to our southern neighbour with their dominant power in the states, and no equivalent of Elections Canada, to see how right Macdonald was to put power where it belonged.

            We will get through this. Rebuilding will involve consideration of national long-term care facility standards, national emergency preparedness, a national day care program, and a universal basic income. And each debate will echo the voices of Marx, Maslow, and Macdonald.

(This article appeared in the Toronto Star on November 30. If you enjoyed it, please pass it along to someone.)

The Election and Celebration of the Light

Strolls downtown anywhere are different at noon and midnight. Eighty-five percent of DUIs, 65% of murders, and 59% of rapes and sexual assaults happen at night. What is true of those who harbour dangerous intent is the exact opposite for those with dangerous ideas. While criminals work in the dark, racists, homophobes, and bigots thrive in the light.

We saw this notion played out for decades when the majority of those in positions of political, economic, and social power proclaimed in words and actions that racism, homophobia, and bigotry were dangerous and wrong. Most of us were taught at school and at home that it was wrong to hold those beliefs or, at the very least, unacceptable to publicly express them.

The hope was that those with ugly, hateful, divisive ideas would abandon them as they found themselves among a dwindling minority; forced to hide themselves and their beliefs in the dark. But the fight over ideas was diverted into one over words. The public use of words and expressions I certainly won’t repeat here became as socially unacceptable as spitting at a cocktail party. For a while, it appeared that what became known as politically correct language had won the battle.

But it was a battle at the fringes of the fight. And a battle is not a war. Those whose toxic ideas had consigned them to the darkness grumbled about their right to use to whatever words they wished. Immune to irony, they claimed their right to use toxic words was a matter of freedom. Those cynically or sincerely wishing to win their support joined their fight against political correctness. In so doing, the light of acceptability was shone not just on the words but the ideas behind them and the people who held them. And, not surprisingly, back into that light crept the racists, homophobes, and bigots.

Donald Trump did not create the people or ideas. He simply became one of those shining a light on them. His candidacy and presidency afforded legitimacy for the ideas many had hoped were dying and those who many had hoped were but a few. Not all Trump supporters were racist, homophobic bigots – not by a long shot. But all racist, homophobic bigots were Trump supporters. And for four years the ideas and those who held them enjoyed the light – fine people, Trump said.

Then came the 2020 presidential election. Those who supported legitimate right-wing ideas such as smaller government and lower taxes voted for Trump. So did those with the foulest of ideas. But Joe Biden won.

(Photo: isiopolis.com)

The great hope of that victory is that the powerful beacon that is controlled by a president’s actions and bully pulpit will be turned away from the racists, homophobes, and bigots who will again find themselves in the darkness of social unacceptability. Instead, the light will shine on the ideas of diversity, equality, and social and legal justice. And folks like me will hope again that everything dies in the dark as surely as everything that is good grows in the light.

(If you enjoyed this article, please forward it to others through your social media of choice.)

The Rigged Presidential Election

Power never sleeps. Those with power usually want more and will do just about anything to get it. Beginning in the 1930s, Joseph Kennedy became one of America’s most powerful men. His fabulous wealth was made through shrewd investing, cornering the rum market, and producing Hollywood movies. His activities created connections with other powerful Americans in the worlds of finance, politics, entertainment, unions, and organized crime. Power, of course, is useless if not employed. In 1960, Kennedy used his power to get his son, John, elected president.

John F. Kennedy was, as they still say in his native Boston, wicked smart. He was also handsome, charismatic, a persuasive speaker, a war hero, and a U.S. Senator. But he was Catholic when that was two-and-a-half strikes against him in most parts of the country. He would also be running against Richard Nixon. He was also smart, a tenacious worker, rapaciously ambitious, and was completing his second term as vice president for the popular Dwight D. Eisenhower. The nomination race would be close and the presidential race closer. Joseph Kennedy knew his son could lose and, for him, that was simply unacceptable.

Joseph Kennedy and his son

Among Kennedy’s investments was his 1945 purchase of Merchandise Mart; a building in Chicago that housed 13 warehouses. It allowed Kennedy to control the sale of goods, primarily those related to building trades, around much of the country. The building itself was the largest in the United States, so big that until 1988 it had its own zip code. His control of Merchandise Mart had led to interactions with unions and through them organized crime figures which, at the time, controlled union membership and union’s massive pension funds.

In the fall of 1959, with the nomination campaign underway and not going particularly well, Kennedy met at his Hyannis Port compound with singer Frank Sinatra. He asked Sinatra to meet with organized crime figure Sam Giancana and persuade him to support his son. Giancana had grown from an Al Capone hitman to become one of America’s most powerful organized crime figures. He agreed to help get Kennedy elected if John and Robert would end their determination to break organized crime syndicates and jail its leaders. He also wanted Fidel Castro gone and the nationalized Cuban casinos returned to their previous owners, one of whom was him. Joseph Kennedy agreed. The fix was in.

In early 1960, with John Kennedy still seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination, mob and union money began pouring into the campaign. Union leaders began voicing support and union rank and file began volunteering in overwhelming numbers. The presidential campaign brought more union and mob money and support.

Election night is a media invention. For decades, no one expected all votes to be counted and a winner declared on election day. Television invented the myth that the winner must be announced quickly, hopefully in prime time, to satisfy sponsors who paid extra for election night ads. They were disappointed in November 1960. State after state was announced for Nixon and Kennedy with many too close to call. Most Americans and even the two candidates finally went to bed not knowing who the next president would be.

The next morning, Kennedy’s young daughter Caroline leapt into his bed and said, “Good Morning Mr. President.” That is how he found out that he had won. But how had he won?

In 1977, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee revealed that on election night, Chicago’s powerful mayor, Richard Daly, had telephoned Kennedy and said, “Mr. President, with a little bit of luck and the help of a few close friends, you’re going to win Illinois.” Kennedy took Illinois and its 27 Electoral College votes by fewer than 9, 400 votes. It was revealed that a frankly unbelievable 89% of Illinois voters had cast ballots. While Nixon had won many of the rural counties, those victories were overwhelmed by Kennedy having won four times his predicted plurality in Chicago. Kennedy squeaked similar victories due to other strong union cities coming his way that swung other states such as Nevada, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

Final tallies had Kennedy win 303 to Nixon’s 219 Electoral College votes. However, out of 63 million votes cast, Kennedy won only 118,000 more votes than Nixon. Nixon and just about everyone else on the inside of the two campaigns knew what had happened. In some Illinois precincts, for example, more people voted for Kennedy than there were people. But Nixon later wrote in his memoirs that if he had challenged the results he would be branded a sore loser and his political career would be over. Nixon did the honourable thing – he conceded.

Power still loves power. The difference between 1960 and 2020 is that power no longer seeks the shadows. It took 20 years to unearth all that corrupted the 1960 election. Now, we are seeing naked power operating before our eyes. We are seeing corruption without apology. We are seeing corrupt power excused and encouraged by a television network and social media platforms supportive of its means and ends. We are seeing heavily armed people incited to protect the power that overtly robs them of all they think they are defending.

All of this means that while Kennedy stole the 1960 election, compared to today, that theft was child’s play.

(If you enjoyed this article, please share it with others on your social media of choice.)

China and the Thucydides Trap

As Americans move toward their election and we toy with one of our own we should consider a broader perspective. We should summon the courage to wrestle with the question more important than the scandal du jour and bigger than even COVID or Climate. We should debate the Thucydides Trap.

Thucydides was an Athenian historian and general who lived over 2500 years ago. At a time when everyone blamed or thanked various Gods for everything, Thucydides wrote that plagues, wars, and other catastrophes were the result of decisions made by people. Those decisions, he insisted, were based on the same considerations that individuals rely upon when making all decisions: self-interest and fear. His work on the Peloponnesian War laid the foundation for all historical inquiry that followed because it was based on demonstrable facts and empirical evidence. 

Thucydides

In his analysis of the struggles between Sparta and Athens, Thucydides introduced what became known as the Thucydides Trap. That is, when an established world power is threatened by a rising world power, war between them is inevitable.  

China’s power has grown since it discarded communism for a new amalgam of Adam Smith capitalism and Karl Marx collectivism. In 1978, 90% of China’s people survived on less that one dollar a day. That number is now one percent. Since 1978, Chinese capital has built infrastructure in African and South and Central American countries. China owns a growing percentage of American and western government debt. Chinese investors have purchased companies and real estate throughout the western world. Western companies rely on Chinese factories to build everything from kites to computers that are then shipped back and sold for prices that bankrupt home-based companies. Amazon, Costco, and Walmart are essentially Chinese distribution centres. Cash-strapped American and Canadian universities and private schools have re-jigged their business models to become dependent on educating Chinese students who, upon graduation, go back home and kick our ass.

When will China overtake the United States to become the world’s most powerful economy?  We missed it. It’s in our rear-view mirror. If you examine dominance of the world’s manufacturing and trade; Gross Domestic Product by every measure that matters; the size and buying power of China’s middle class and its number of millionaires and billionaires, China has already surpassed the United States.  

We are at our Thucydides moment. Historians have noted 16 similar moments. Besides Athens and Sparta, they include the Hapsburgs and French in the 16th century, the Dutch and English in the 17th, Britain and France in the 18th, Russia and Japan in the 19th, and the United States and Soviet Union in the 20th century. Of the 16 cases of a rising power threatening an established power, 15 have resulted in direct or proxy wars.

The United States has tried to squirm from the trap without war. President Obama tried to contain China with trade and environmental treaties. President Trump impulsively withdrew from those deals while taxing Americans through tariffs on Chinese trade. Obama and Trump were merely tinkering at the edges of the much larger issue. While Americans screamed at and over each other about concerns other countries solved decades ago, the teeter-totter of global power continued to tilt toward China. Canada has been a bit player in the global game, doing what it can to punch above its weight but it’s put in its place when taking actions such as arresting one of China’s business leaders. China has largely ignored American and Canadian noise as it relentlessly advances its long-term project.

Bill Clinton once observed that the history of the 21st century will be written according to how China uses its power. He was only partly correct. The century’s history will more likely be determined by whether Thucydides was right. A Chinese-American war is not inevitable. But unless Americans get over themselves and wake up to what has really been happening while they have been arguing with each other, it will become more likely. And that war, between two nuclear behemoths, will benefit no one.

(If you enjoyed this, please forward it to friends on Facebook or your social media vehicle of choice.)

So I Went to Jail

After self-isolating for weeks and with the pandemic still raging I decided to go to jail. For the first time in a long while, circumstances had me out of town and with time to kill in Kingston, Ontario. I was somehow drawn to tour the Kingston Penitentiary. It was fascinating and jarring.

My first shock was that the big metal door slamming behind me left me sincerely shaken. I understood that my hand-sanitized and masked bubble kept me safe from the place and others on my tour and that I could leave at any time but the perceived finality of that sound resonated deep within me. How could it have felt for the thousands who heard that slam and then awoke in this place morning after mind-numbing, soul-wrenching morning?

(Photo CBC)

The 21-acre facility on Lake Ontario opened as the Provincial Penitentiary of the Province of Upper Canada in 1835. With Confederation in 1867 it became the Kingston Penitentiary. I learned that throughout its first decades its inmates included men, women, and until the Juvenile Delinquency Act was passed in 1908, children as young as eight.

Our guide said that he would answer any questions except about specific inmates. I had read a little before the tour and so knew that among the pen’s more famous guests were Communist Party leader Tim Buck, James Donnelly of the Black Donnellys, Boyd Gang leader Edwin Alonzo Boyd, and Grace Marks who we came to know through Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. And there was the monster who, with his wife, raped and tortured young girls – like our guide, I will not afford him the dignity of recalling his name.

While we saw the exercise yard, the factory-like work houses, and more, the most disturbing portion of the tour was the cell block. Four two-story blocks reach like spider legs from a central hub. Each barred cell is one pace wide and two paces long and housed one inmate. Each had a steel table and a steel bunk bed, the upper for sleeping and the lower for a desk. The cells allowed neither privacy nor dignity and about five square feet of floor space. I would have gone mad. I’m guessing many did.

Our guide led us around to former guards who each spoke of their area. The gentleman in the block told us of the 1971 four-day riot in which inmates took control of the prison. It was intriguing that while many wanted to kill the guards, only one was beaten up before all were locked away and left unhurt. However, the inmates released those who were kept separate from the others – the rapists and child molesters. They were mercilessly tortured and two were killed.

Over the years a number of people escaped. The story that struck me was the gentleman who in the 1930s somehow scaled the wall and made it all the way to Louisiana. He then had the temerity to write a snarky letter back to the warden. The letter is there under glass with its surprisingly neat penmanship. Our buddy, however, forgot that envelopes are postmarked and so authorities soon picked him up and hauled him home.

In 2013, after 178 years, the Kingston Pen was closed because it no longer met federal guidelines and a retrofit was deemed too costly. Good. We have always needed prisons because some people deserve to be locked away. We have always struggled, however, to balance criminality with mental illness and addiction, punishment with justice, retribution with rehabilitation, and our safety with their humanity. It’s tricky. We’ll probably never get it right. But for a few hours on a gray afternoon within tall gray walls I was reminded of our need to try.

(If you enjoyed this article, please leave a comment, share it with others through the social media of your choice, and consider some of my others at http://www.johnboyko.com)

The Remarkable Woman We Should Know

Helen Gregory MacGill was born in Hamilton, to a prosperous family, in 1864. Her mother, Emma, was suffragist who told her daughter that a woman’s role as a mother affords her a right and responsibility to seek gender equality in order to contribute to society’s improvement. This social feminist idea informed MacGill’s life.

            At age 19, took her dream of becoming a concert pianist to Toronto. She became the first woman to graduate from the University of Toronto’s Trinity College and the British Empire’s first woman to earn a degree in music. She went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts and, in 1890, a Master of Arts degree.

            Upon graduation, she was contracted by the American Cosmopolitan and Atlantic Monthly magazines to cover the opening of the first Japanese legislature under its new Meiji Constitution. MacGill met with family friend, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, who provided her with letters of introduction for her Japan trip and asked her to write of her observations of the Canadian west.

            In what is now Manitoba, MacGill met a rancher named Lee Flesher. A week later they were married. MacGill continued her trek and discovered she had become pregnant. Despite feeling ill nearly every day, she pressed on and composed a number of articles about the Canadian west. While enduring a violent storm on the ship across the Pacific she broke her leg but nonetheless completed her tour of Japan and submitted articles about the legislative opening and the country’s unique culture.      

            When Flesher’s ranch failed, the family moved to San Francisco where he studied medicine. MacGill’s mother Emma left her husband at home to help her daughter with the children. MacGill published articles with a number of newspapers and magazines and, with Emma, purchased and wrote for two newspapers: Society and The Searchlight. Both women advocated greater rights for women at a time when women could not inherit money, hold public office, serve on juries, or vote.

            When Flesher graduated and was offered a job with the Mayo Clinic, the family moved to Minnesota. MacGill published more articles newspapers and magazines and she and her mother joined a number of reform and women’s suffrage organizations. In 1901, Flesher died.

            Carrying on as a single mother of two sons, MacGill became the Exchange Editor of the St. Paul Globe. A series of letters exchanged with university friend, Jim MacGill, led to a romance and the two were married in 1902. They purchased a home in West Vancouver where two daughters were born.

            MacGill continued to write articles and also joined a number of clubs and organizations. She served as president of the Women’s University Club of British Columbia and chaired its Committee for Better Laws for Women and Children in British Columbia. In 1912, she self-published a book entitled Daughters, Wives, and Mothers in British Columbia – Some Laws Affecting Them, then later celebrated progress with eight revisions. In her writing and community work, MacGill rejected radical feminism and sought to bring about change from within the established system. In advocating legal reform and greater concern for women, children, and the poor, she honed her skills as a community organizer and a persuasive public speaker.

            MacGill was a founding member of the Vancouver Women’s Press Club in 1909. As a branch of the Canadian Women’s Press Club, it promoted the hiring of more women journalists while providing classes to help women improve their skills and a network of support to sustain them in the face of resistance to their growing influence. MacGill also founded the Vancouver Music Society that provided another vehicle for discussions of social issues. In 1913, MacGill helped bring together twelve women’s organizations to purchase a large Thurlow Street building. Designated the Vancouver Women’s Building, it was the first of its kind in Canada; providing office and meeting space for women’s groups and a dime-a-day childcare. MacGill taught classes there in writing, public speaking, and how to conduct and effectively participate in meetings.

            MacGill’s widening circle of friends included painter Emily Carr, who provided young Elsie with art lessons. Another was feminist and social advocate Nelly McClung.

            Women’s tireless efforts to win the right to vote led to one province after another granting that right. MacGill was at the forefront of the fight in British Columbia which granted women the right to vote in 1917. The action allowed women not only to vote but also to run for and be appointed to public office.

            In July 1917, British Columbia celebrated its first female judge when the 53-year-old MacGill was appointed Judge of the Juvenile Court of Vancouver. On the bench, MacGill balanced the welfare of the child with the safety of society. She acted upon her belief that most children who commit crimes are from homes where love is absent or the child is neglected or mistreated. She advocated probation rather than incarceration for most children convicted of crimes. She worked with the Children’s Aid Society and other groups to create accommodations, school and work placements, and counselling support. MacGill said that after a year of support and regular school attendance, along with educating parents, 95% of children she saw in court were leading productive lives. Her efforts led to a revision of peoples’ perception of the purpose of the juvenile court along with its procedures and institutions. She served as a juvenile court judge from 1917 to 1929 – when a new government appointed a replacement – and then again from 1934 to 1945.

            Throughout those years MacGill continued her reform efforts with membership in a great many groups. Among them was Vancouver Mother’s Pension Board, the Mayor’s Unemployment Committee, the Provincial Board of Industrial Relations, Advisory Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, the Minimum Wage Board, the International Juvenile Court Judges Association, and the Welfare Subcommittee of the United Nations. In 1938, MacGill became the first woman to receive an honourary Doctor of Laws from the University of British Columbia.

            In 1945, at age 81, Helen Gregory MacGill retired. Remarkably, after 23 years on the bench, not one of her decisions was reversed in appeal. Two years later, while visiting her daughter Helen in Chicago, she died. Her daughter Elsie became the world’s first female aeronautical engineer and aircraft designer. She cited her mother as her greatest mentor and influence. Elsie wrote that she was constantly moved by her mother’s, “passionate, yet objective sympathy for the hurt, the helpless, and the exploited.”