John Horgan Up Close

In conversation with John Horgan in Shades at Main, Penticton. Photo by Josh Berson
In conversation with John Horgan in Shades at Main, Penticton.
Photo by Josh Berson

When I called the provincial NDP office in early December to request an interview with party leader John Horgan, I considered it a “long shot.” With a provincial election looming, would he want to talk with a small market columnist? I suggested to his effervescent press secretary, Sheena McConnell, that he is well known as a politician, but not as a person. My interest was in writing about his non-political life. She said, “Let’s set something up in a couple of months.”

Sheena McConnell, Press Secretary
Sheena McConnell, Press Secretary
Photo by Joshua Berson

On his early February whirlwind swing through the Okanagan Valley, we met in the Shades on Main restaurant in Penticton. He turned out to be everything I had not expected in an NDP leader.

Upon entering the restaurant, he walked briskly to our table accompanied by Sheena. He had already been interviewed at 8 a.m. by CBC Kelowna, also by Kamloops and Victoria stations. He had met people in two Kelowna coffee shops and one in Osoyoos. In spite of the travel and interviews, he exuded energy and congeniality. I would learn that at age 57 he has the concentration of an NHL goalie.

In response to my question about family, he said “my father suffered a brain aneuyrsm on Christmas Eve and passed away a few months later. I was an infant and have no memories of him. My mom didn’t have a drivers licence or job. A few years later, I’d come home from school, turn on the tv and make myself a peanut butter sandwich.”

There were serious hurdles before he found sure footing. “I went off the rails in grade 9”, he said. “I started smoking and hanging out with a bad crowd. I skipped classes and failed math, science, typing and French. he principal, counsellor, and basketball coach worked hard to keep me in school.” In grade 12 he was elected president of the student council and captain of the basketball team. “In basketball, soccer and lacrosse, I learned a lot about personal discipline. I came to understand the importance of working together.”

Along the way he got experience that seasoned him and helped him understand people with limited means. “I’ve worked in mills,” he said. “I’ve worked in construction. I know what it’s like to live paycheque to paycheque.”

On his first day at Trent University, he met Ellie. “She was gorgeous and she was kind.” They have now been married 33 years and have 2 sons. He rarely takes Ellie along campaigning. “I’m concerned for her,” he said. “It’s too distracting.” He needs to be away a lot so he doesn’t see her as much as he’d like. He says, “Even so, she’s my oasis in all this madness.”

John didn’t hesitate when I asked if we could talk about his bout with cancer. “Sure,” he said. “I was diagnosed with bladder cancer at age 49. I’ve had surgery since and it went well. It helped me understand that every moment is precious. We need to make an impact and try to help others.”

He had thoughts of social work when he began undergraduate studies as a psychology major at Trent University in Ontario. This changed when he attended a talk by Tommy Douglas. Then about 82, this iconic political elder kindled a flame in him. “He was a small, frail man, but I was impacted by the power of his voice, his speaking skill, and his message. He spoke of compassion and empathy, the importance of protecting the less fortunate. I shook his hand, convinced I could make a greater difference in policy development.”

John switched to political science and history, and went on to attain an M.A. in Australia. In 1983 he joined the NDP.

Having grown up in a politically conservative family, I’ve long been wary of NDP policies. I decided to ask a few political questions. His responses suggested he might be closer to median voters like myself than I had anticipated. He said, “A linear spectrum of politics doesn’t work anymore. The needs of business people and working people are the same. Seniors aren’t concerned about ideology. Students aren’t interested in manifestos.”

We need investment in industry. Workers understand that to have jobs, business must prosper.”

After 35 minutes he needed to hurry to a meeting with the Chief and Council of the Penticton Band. In his values, especially his concern for all people, John Horgan caused me to think of J.S. Woodsworth, respected founder of the CCF, now the NDP.

George And Christina, Still Valentines

George & Christina, with a couple of Christina's creations.
George & Christina, with a couple of Christina’s creations.

For me a relationship that has been tested by the storms of life holds a more riveting fascination than young, often transitory romance. Aware of the cloud overshadowing the marriage of George and Christina Thiessen, and with Valentines Day approaching, I wanted to hear their story. Last week they invited Linda and me to their spacious heritage home in Hedley.

For reasons that will be revealed, George did most of the talking. “We met in Reno,” he began. “Christina was a passenger on the bus I was driving for Maverick Tours. The Tour Guide asked me what I like to do in Reno. I told her I’d probably go dancing. I just needed a partner. She introduced me to Christina, and that evening Christina was my dancing partner.”

She told me later she had not expected to hear from me again, after we returned to B.C.”

George had been married twice. His first wife had borne 3 children, then died at a young age. The second wife had become a demanding, unruly alcoholic and the marriage had been a crushing failure.

Upon meeting Christina, George realized she possessed the depth of character he had been longing for. Smitten by her pretty, smiling face and evident kindness, he called her.

In time they moved in together. “Christina wouldn’t marry me though,” George said. “She had also been hurt in previous relationships and didn’t want to commit again.”

George continued to drive the tour bus, at times away for 11 days, with only a 1 day break between trips. Christina was working at the Surrey Memorial Hospital, cleaning operating rooms. George’s driving schedule and their history of hurtful relationships might have made this a rocky union. Fortunately George’s stability appealed to Christina and reassured her.

When I lost my 17 year old son in a bike/automobile accident, it was a difficult time,” he said. “Christina stood by me. Then my daughter passed away and again Christina was at my side, supporting me.”

They saw an ad for a spacious home in Hedley and called the realtor. Entranced by the house and the large yard, they bought it. The house needed serious updating so George studied magazines, bought tools and set to work.

George & Christina, in front of their Hedley home, Oct. 2015
George & Christina, in front of their Hedley home, Oct. 2015

He began experiencing severe sciatic pain and Graham Gore, pastor of the Hedley Grace Church, drove him to Kelowna for surgery. After recovering, George and Christina attended the church on a Sunday morning to thank the congregation for their support. Liking the people and the atmosphere, they continued to attend. On May 30, 2009 Graham married them in a small ceremony on their park like grounds.

About 2 years later the aforementioned cloud appeared on the horizon, scarcely noticeable at first. “Tests were done and we were told Christina had a slow progressing form of dementia,” George said, a note of deep sadness in his voice.

The diagnosis changed their lives. “Christina was always very talented in crafting,” George said. “One year she made 30 teddy bears to give away as Christmas gifts. She inspired me to take up woodworking.”

He pushed back his chair. “Come,” he said, “we’ll show you some of our creations. He led us upstairs to 3 rooms where we were greatly impressed by an array of Christina’s stuffed animals lolling on chairs and George’s intricate wood creations displayed on the walls. A beguiling aura of genius pervaded these rooms.

George with one of his wood creations.
George with one of his wood creations.

The dementia has caused this creative activity to cease. Their lives have become constricted. They still attend the church but participate only briefly in the coffee time afterwards. “Christina becomes anxious in groups.”

George paused. “Sometimes when I’m doing yardwork she wanders off and I don’t notice Fortunately, if she stays on the route we walk, she can find her way back. Usually when people see her alone, I get phone calls. People want to help.”

Christina playing the keyboard.
Christina playing the keyboard.

Not all is lost. Christina played the key board for us and her rendition of the Blue Danube Waltz was delicate and pleasing. Also, we had observed that while George was talking about the dementia, she sensed his distress and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. When they go out, she requests his assistance in selecting appropriate combinations of clothes. Although her comprehension is limited, she is able to engage in simple exchanges.

I love Christina and I’m committed to her,” George said. “I won’t place her in a home. We’re in this together to the end.” They’re still Valentines.

Ayrelea In India

Ayrelea Nimchuk
Ayrelea Nimchuk

We would likely not be surprised if a 15 year old girl decided to spend at least a portion of her summer earnings on designer clothes, jewelry and cosmetics. Quite possibly Ayrelea Nimchuk of Hedley was also tempted by these allurements. I was amazed to learn that she chose instead to pay for a trip to India where she volunteered for about 3 weeks at a school for underprivileged boys.

Sitting in our sun room she said, “I heard Dan and Olga McCormick talking about going to a boys school in India. I asked when they were leaving and said I’d like to go with them.”After several discussions and some research, her parents agreed. Ayrelea saved her income from working at the Hedley Museum to pay almost $3000 for the trip. The Hedley Seniors’ Centre gave her $200 and the Hedley Grace Church contributed $500 for a chicken dinner for the approximately 500 boys at the school.

Prem Sewa is a free boarding school for boys from poor homes,” she said. “They can start at age 5 and go to grade 12. Parents are eager to have their sons attend. They know there is no future for them without an education. In their home these boys often received only one meal a day. At the school they get 3 meals. She smiled and said, “the plates are really big and the boys go back for second and third helpings. They eat it all.”

In addition to Dan and Olga, there were 3 other recruits from Keremeos. “ We played football (soccer) with them. It’s a big game there. Also, they love volley ball. Their ball is very hard but they really smack it. They are good players.”

Ayrelea in India (3)

Another smile. “They all wanted us to take pictures of them. They’d say ‘one photo’, but they meant many. They’d look at the picture and burst out laughing.”

According to the school’s website, it’s purpose is “to give children from poor homes, orphans and semi-orphans, a chance to study in schools and institutions, which otherwise would be closed to them.” There is a computer lab, a wood workshop, a mechanics shop and land to grow crops. If a boy demonstrates special promise, Frank Juelich the founder, will personally pay for him to attend college.

Ayrelea in India, rolling dough to make chapattis.
Ayrelea in India, rolling dough to make chapattis.

The school, which has a sister school for girls about 650 kilometers away, actually was not begun intentionally. As a young man Frank Juelich traveled in India and wanted to learn a local language. He found 3 young men with a desire to learn English and they began studying together and helping each other. One of these men knew a boy who needed an education and asked if they could help him. Soon there were 40 boys attending sessions.

Frank became aware of the pressing need for educational opportunities among the very poor. He returned to Canada, raised $42,000 and purchased 17.75 acres in a rural area.

Now the school has a small medical clinic with a nurse on duty. A doctor comes in once a week. They also have an ambulance. The boys bathe 2 times each day and learn about hygiene. Since the inception of the school, dormitories and other facilities have been constructed. A settlement has grown up around the facility, and approximately 150 children are day students at the school.

The language of instruction is Marathi, with English also required.“We sat with them in the English classes and helped them,” Ayrelea said. “When we went to the market, we took along a few of the boys who were more advanced in English to translate for us.”

I was impressed to learn that most of the staff are graduates of the school, including the Director and also the President. Frank Juelich, now elderly, is continuing as a consultant. He wants to die in India.

Ayrelea returned with many vivid memories. Cows, pigs and chickens wandering unmolested, cow dung used to fill joints in walls. Markets with a rich array of offerings. Also, she loved the peanut butter. For her the experience reinforced a desire to be involved in humanitarian work somewhere.

Ayrelea dressed in her salwar kameez.
Ayrelea dressed in her salwar kameez.

She’s a pretty young lady and really doesn’t need the designer clothes and jewelry. Her decision has provided her with rich experiences and memories, and it brought smiles to the faces of the boys in India.