Category Archives: Community

Through An Artist’s Lens

Harvey Donahue, artist
Harvey Donahue, artist

I’m convinced local Similkameen artist Harvey Donahue views the world through a very different lens than most of us. Where we might see only an abandoned house bleached by the sun, or an ancient, decrepit logging truck left to rust in the woods, Harvey is likely to see unique beauty. For him these relics of the past could be worthy of an honoured place on his canvas. “Old houses can be beautiful,” he told Linda and me. “When I see one, I’m inspired to paint.”

Photo of Bill Robinson's cabin, taken Jan. 2015
Photo of Bill Robinson’s cabin, taken Jan. 2015

I first heard from Harvey almost 2 years ago after I wrote about Bill Robinson’s iconic cabin along the Sumallo River in Manning Park. “I painted that cabin and the outbuilding before they fell into disrepair,” he said. “I’d like to send you a copy of the original.” That was the beginning of a phone relationship until he visited our home two weeks ago. On that occasion he surprised us with the framed, original painting of the snow bedecked Robinson cabin and outbuilding. For some reason known only to himself, he very generously presented it to Linda and myself. It is likely the best representation of that scene in existence today. It’s a gift we prize highly.

Being raised in Lac Ste. Anne, a Metis village in Alberta, very likely played a key role in the formation of how Harvey views the scenes and people around him. Now age 80, he retains vivid memories and images of those early years. He recounted them as though talking about individual mental snapshots from his past. “I started trapping when I was about 7 or 8. When my uncle moved away, I took over his trapline. Mostly I trapped weasels and sent the skins to a company in Edmonton. There was an annual pilgrimage of Metis people to our village. Some Cree came too. I attended school only until I completed grade 10,” he said. “Metis youths were encouraged to drop out after grade 8. We were called half breeds. I grew up feeling shame at being Metis. I used to tell people I was French. I remember that my dad had a few cows, some chickens and a garden.”

Although there wasn’t money for art lessons, he began painting at age 10. “When I was 14,” he remembers, “I painted a mermaid luring a ship onto the rocks. I still have that painting.”

His negative view of the Metis heritage began to shift at about age 20. “I decided I should be responsible for my existence. I began studying my Metis heritage and learned that my grandfather Gabriel Balcourt supported Louis Riel. He is listed on a plaque naming supporters.”

Harvey’s first wife was Metis and they had 4 children before she passed away. As he matured, his appreciation of the Metis heritage blossomed. “I became proud of being Metis,” he said. After moving to the Lower Mainland, he started a Metis organization and built it to 500 members. He is gratified that it is still functioning.

Harvey Donahue with Metis flag in the background
Harvey Donahue with Metis flag in the background

Harvey believes the Metis heritage shaped him. His life experiences, including the early discrimination, seem to have given him an understanding that we should not be quick to discount or discard our past. I sensed he has come to a deep realization that a historic structure or event represents what was important to people at an early time and place. It tells us about their culture, values and life experiences. It’s a connection with our past.

When I see a scene that is likely to disappear, I take a picture and paint it,” he said. “I paint heritage scenes so they won’t be lost to the next generation.”

As an example he told us about one painting that depicts an old truck standing near a grove of trees. “Shortly after I completed that painting,” he told us, “the trees were cut down.” Sometimes he adds something to a painting. One of my favourite scenes is of the one way bridge in Princeton. He placed his own pickup truck in this picture.

Painting by Harvey Donahue of Princeton Bridge, with his Dodge pickup in the foreground.
Painting by Harvey Donahue of Princeton Bridge, with his Dodge pickup in the foreground.

Harvey views the Similkameen Valley with the watchful, observant eyes of an artist. “When the sun rises in the east,” he said, “you see subtle colours in the west.” He paused and then added, “art and music are important. They help us appreciate life, the past and the present, that exists all around us.”

Fulfillment From Service To Community

Art at anti-SE2 rally
Art at anti-SE2 rally

 With children back in classrooms and the benign sunny days of summer largely a fond memory, autumn is a good time to make a decision that will reward us with deep satisfaction and fulfillment. Experience has demonstrated to Linda and myself, and to many others, that being active in our community can stir up a surprising sizzle of adventure. Of the approximately 80 individuals with whom I’ve had conversations for this space over the past 2 years, most have been, or still are ardent contributors to their community. Whether helping in a thrift store, driving seniors to appointments, or rallying to a larger issue, whatever their age, I have found them to be upbeat and vibrant.

Linda and I have learned that being active in our community brings useful insights, powerful memories and lasting friendships. While living in Abbotsford in the 1990’s, a U.S. corporation proposed to construct a highly polluting gas fired power plant, Sumas Energy 2 (SE2), just across the border from our community. Due to the prevailing air flow, most of the plant’s dirty emissions would migrate to our side, endangering the health of humans, animals and crops. Citizens were aghast.

SE2 applied to the National Energy Board (NEB) for permission to build a power line across Abbotsford to access the B.C. Hydro power grid. Our provincial government could have opposed this but in spite of many promises during the election campaign, it remained on the sidelines, mute and indifferent.

With hordes of SE2 and NEB attorneys ready to advise and direct the proceedings, Linda and I, like most in our community, decided this issue was well beyond our experience and capability.

The NEB invited citizens to participate in the hearings as intervenors but when the local newspaper published the list of those who had signed up, there were only 17. Linda said, “that’s not enough. We’ll have to get involved.” She meant I would have to sign up and she would support me.

Several letters to the local newspaper expressed the prevailing gloomy sentiment. “Don’t waste your time. The Yanks always win.”

Linda and I invited 8 friends to our home to discuss the issue. I asked city Councillor Patricia Ross and future mayor Mary Reeves to come and tell us what they knew. Several concerned individuals we didn’t know phoned and asked to attend. At a subsequent meeting a week later, we had 21 people, mostly strangers, in our livingroom, some sitting on the floor. Desperate to create some momentum, I said, “would anyone object to setting a goal of 10,000 letters from this community to the NEB?” I offered to write a form letter people could use.

The group enthusiastically endorsed the idea. We came to be known in the media as the SE2 Action Group. MLA John van Dongen supplied paper and the use of his photo copier. Several businesses made the letter available. Attendance at the meetings in our home swelled, with many people willingly sitting on the floor or standing. Our little group became a potent catalyst that gave people hope. Many citizens picked up copies of the letter and distributed them. The Berry Festival provided a booth, and there were line ups to sign the letter. This also happened at a huge community rally. The big city media took notice and showed up.

In the SE2 Action Group, close friendships were developing. We were coalescing into a tightly knit bunch, growing bolder in our strategies and tactics. For Linda and me it was fascinating to observe the community gaining hope and coming together. Defeatist letters to the editor ceased.

The NEB came to town and hundreds of citizens crowded into a large hall. So many had signed up as intervenors, the hearings required several days. We had reached our 10,000 letter goal but even so, NEB staffers cautioned us not to expect a favourable decision. To everyone’s amazement and SE2’s consternation, the Board ruled in our favour. Then the Federal Appeals Court also sided with us.

Countless citizens had worked tirelessly to accomplish what many had considered impossible. We were rewarded with feelings of deep satisfaction, fulfillment, and incredible exhilaration. Also with lasting friendships and an understanding that the impossible is possible.

Autumn is a great time to get out of the eddy of our own complacency. A time to begin reaping the rewards that come when we do something positive for our community.

Princeton Music Festival A Success

When our friends Terry and Lis Friesen of Abbotsford visited here this past Saturday, they commented on how busy Princeton was. They did not know this was the weekend of the Princeton Traditional Music Festival. Linda and I enjoyed it for a few hours on Sunday.

Jon Bartlett, one of the main organizers of the festival.
Jon Bartlett, one of the main organizers of the festival.

I met Jon Bartlett. He and Rika Ruebsaat are the visionaries and primary organizers who make the festival happen. Jon told me the attendance for the weekend was an estimated 2,000. “It’s about the right number,” he said. “It allows for interaction between performers and the audience.”

There were 2 main stages, with canopies to shield performers and audiences from the sun. Saturday was a scorcher. Should have been a boon for sellers of ice cream and drinks.

"Liberty" performing.
“Liberty” performing.

We particularly enjoyed “Liberty,” a band from the interior of B.C. Cousin Verna’s friend, Bob Cameron (Cam) played the guitar in this group. They featured Irish music.

The Vancouver Morris Men, clad in white, performed a series of vibrant dances on the street. They required more space than was afforded by a stage. Accompanied by several musical instruments, there was a lot of strenuous kicking of legs, waving of large white handkerchiefs and some well timed verbal outbursts. A riveting performance. The Morris is a traditional British dance.

The Vancouver Morris Men
The Vancouver Morris Men

One non-musical event was offered by the Okanagan Valley School of Massage. This was a half hour massage by donation. Our friend Sharlene had come with us and took advantage of this service. It seemed to be the highlight of her day. I asked if she was a new woman. Virtually vibrating with pleasure at the memory of the experience she said “yes!”

For further information about the festival and Jon and Rika, see my blog a couple of weeks ago. (“Princeton Traditional Music Festival”).

Princeton Traditional Music Festival

Jon & Rika in front of their home in Princeton, BC. Joyfully expressing in song their enthusiasm for music.
Jon & Rika in front of their home in Princeton, BC. Joyfully expressing in song their enthusiasm for music. (click on photo for close up)

Jon Bartlett and Rika Ruebsaat don’t receive even token remuneration for the hundreds of hours and enormous energy they devote to the Princeton Traditional Music Festival. Listening to them talk about the event and the underlying sizzle of excitement in their voices, Linda and I realized there must be compelling reasons behind their uncommon dedication. Jon gave us at least a glimpse of this when he said, “We want to recover the traditional music of B.C. Music that reflects the experiences of men in logging and fishing camps, of miners, Irish immigrants, French Canadians, and many others.” For them much of the reward stems from the joy they see in musicians and attendees.

Both Jon and Rika are immigrants to Canada. Rika came as a child in 1952. Jon arrived at age 21 in 1969. Their pre Festival lives could hardly have followed a more apt trajectory as a preparation for the present significant enterprise.

As a young woman, Rika’s first career was in theatre. “I began studying theatre at UBC,” she recalled. “Before I was done though, I quit the program, went to England and hitchhiked around Europe. I connected with a bilingual theatre group and we performed in Europe and Canada.” For her it was “an absolute passion, totally engaging and transformative.”

Jon had been a paralegal in England, frequently investigating railway accidents. He also did pre-trial court work. On arriving in Canada he initially followed a similar career path. Later he supported himself, in part, by singing in Gas Town.

Each had a consuming interest in music and this led them independently to the Vancouver Folk Circle. It was here that their relationship and collaboration began.

Jon Bartlett & Rika Ruebsaat
Jon Bartlett & Rika Ruebsaat

Initially it was a relationship of respect and suspicion on my part,” Rika said. “Jon was demanding and challenging. You couldn’t just say something. He expected you to explain. I found that attractive.”

For Jon, Rika met an important expectation. “I couldn’t be with someone who wasn’t political,” he said.

Their story suggests they were restless, always seeking involvements they considered important.

We thought there would be a big change,” Jon said, “a revolution.” He meant a revolution in the thinking of Canadians. “We were hoping for people to wake up and realize we need to work together to make the world a better place. We were looking for decency in public life. We wanted people to accept responsibility for their own actions and not just fall into something. To make a choice. The revolution didn’t happen.”

Combining their talents they forged a potent partnership, performing on stages across Canada, including school class rooms. For some time they sang and told stories “from around the province” on the CBC radio program, “North by Northwest”. They also wrote 2 books. One was short listed for the prestigious Roderick Haig- Brown prize and also the Lieutenant Governor’s Medal for Historical Writing.

They settled in Princeton and in 2007 were invited to perform on the Racing Days Weekend. “We had so much fun,” Rika remembers, “we wanted to do a festival. Over the years we had connected with a world wide circle of musicians. We invited our musician friends to come.”

Although they don’t get paid, over the years their friends have responded enthusiastically. “We do fund raising,” Jon said. “Also we receive some support from the town, the Gaming Branch, the RDOS and the federal government, but not enough to pay performers. We provide billets and we also give them food vouchers to local restaurants.”

For the musicians, it’s a total immersion,” Rika observed. “They love it. It provides an opportunity to perform music that comes from the community, the kind of music you make with your family. It’s music you might hear through the wall.”

Linda and I were deeply impressed by the sense of mutual respect, the commitment and the incurable optimism we saw in Jon and Rika.. They were lavish in their praise for the committee that has worked with them since early this year to make the coming festival a huge success.

Although it’s named the Princeton Traditional Music Festival, it really is for the entire Similkameen Valley. Actually, the province and beyond. There will be at least 140 performers, joyfully singing, playing instruments and telling stories. It’s a major musical event, running from August 19 to 21. Admittance is free. A great gift to us all!



Hedley Fire Department 1912-2016

Hedley in the early years Photo from Hedley Heritage Museum Society
Hedley in the early years
Photo from Hedley Heritage Museum Society

A number of the homes in Hedley were constructed at the time Henry Ford was building his iconic Model T and Model A cars. Early records indicate that for the volunteer fire fighters, protecting these dry wooden structures with scanty equipment presented a mammoth challenge.

According to the now defunct Hedley Gazette, when a fire broke out in the Red Light district of Hedley in 1912, the hose wasn’t long enough to reach the blaze. The only means of combating the fire was to take shovels and throw snow against adjacent buildings. Five structures burned down that day. Museum records are a bit hazy on details but the town apparently purchased a longer hose and used a home made “pull cart” to transport it. Even so, that same year the New Zealand hotel burned to the ground.

Fire hose pull cart - the first one didn't look as attractive as this one.
Fire hose pull cart – the first one didn’t look as attractive as this one.

In 1956 three hotels burned down. These were the Hedley, the Commercial and the Great Northern. According to the Spotlight, the entire business district burned that year, except for one service station.

When Linda and I first visited Hedley in 1976, we watched incredulously as 4 men raced along Scott Avenue, determinedly hauling a pull cart and attached hose to a chimney fire. A former Fire Chief, Ralph McKay, told me recently one man always ran behind the cart to pick up pieces that fell off. In 1984 Hedley purchased a used 1973 Ford truck after the Red and White store burned.

Approximately 10 years ago small cash strapped communities were amazed to learn that insurance underwriters required fire trucks to be less than 20 years old. They threatened to jack up premiums if we dug in our heels. Hedley citizens did just that. Surely an acceptable used truck could be had for far less money, some said. In spite of diligent searching though, no acceptable used truck was ever found. Premiums rose astronomically jolting us like a high voltage lightening strike. In a third referendum we caved in and agreed to borrow funds for a new truck.

Having come to the attention of the Insurance Underwriters Survey, a thorough overhaul of the system and equipment was added to the list of new requirements. According to Vicky Hansen, former office manager for the Hedley Improvement District, “much of the equipment was obsolete, training needed to be upgraded, a duty officer must be designated for each day and members needed to report when they went out of town.” She then added, “I had just been hired. My first day on the job I wrote a cheque for $350,000 to buy the new truck.”

The truck was delivered in 2010. When Terry McFarlane, the new Fire Chief learned that Graham Gore had an air brake ticket, he asked him to join the department. Qualified drivers were in short supply. Graham, age 70 and volunteer pastor of the local church agreed. Then, because no one was doing it, he began reorganizing the department. Being retired and having been in business, he was just right for the job. He was soon named FD manager, a volunteer position.

Graham Gore retires as Hedley Fire Department Manager
Graham Gore retires as Hedley Fire Department Manager

Now, after 6 years of diligent service, at age 77, Graham has recently stepped down. In a telephone conversation this week he said that in pressing for a higher professional standard, he had built on the work of former Assistant Chief Larry McIntosh. He also praised current Chief Terry McFarlane as a good decision maker.

Veteran fire fighter Andy English said “Graham upgraded the training, bought dress uniforms for public occasions, brought in a device so we can fill our air bottles locally, and much more. He has instilled a high level of professionalism. We have a sense of pride.” Assistant Chief Doug Nimchuk said “Graham had no experience with fire fighting but he studied the manuals and learned to do training. We respect his integrity. He doesn’t do a half job.”

Graham Gore’s zeal for the department, his unstinting push for a professional standard, and his positive, uplifting attitude will not be easy to replace. Acknowledging his contribution, one fire fighter said, “to keep up the standard, we’ll all have to step up to the plate.” If early fire fighters could obtain a day pass from the other side of the Great Divide to view modern equipment and training programs that now exist even in Hedley, they’d almost certainly clamor to sign up.

Doug Nimchuk Assistant Fire Chief, Terry McFarlane Fire Chief, Graham Gore retiring FD Manager, Derek Lilly former Fire Chief
Doug Nimchuk Assistant Fire Chief, Terry McFarlane Fire Chief, Graham Gore retiring FD Manager, Derek Lilly former Fire Chief

Japanese Knotweed, A Devious Adversary

Joe Cindrich
Joe Cindrich

Elaine Cindrich told us her husband Joe is tenacious when he’s battling a tough problem. “He’s like a bulldog,” she said. Joe’s tenacity became absolutely essential several years ago when he realized invasive Japanese Knotweed had staked a claim on his neighbour’s property.

The Knotweed can wreak havoc,” Joe told us when Linda and I recently visited at their home in the Township of Langley. He discovered at the outset the plant employs its luscious leaves and pretty white flowers to beguile unsuspecting property owners. When he informed his neighbour, an elderly widow, about the dangers of Knotweed she exclaimed, “Oh, but it’s so beautiful. I just love it.” Only his threat to sue if the plant invaded his property persuaded her to let him attempt to eradicate it.

Leaves of a young Japanese Knotweed
Leaves of a young Japanese Knotweed

Ignorance of the issue has been a huge problem,” he said. “I went to the Township for help. At first the council was skeptical and I needed to educate them. Once they understood it could cause mayhem on municipal lands, they developed a plan and took action.” But it did nothing to assist him.

Now 75, in his work life Joe was a mechanic and then a manager with Finning Tractor in Vancouver. Later he established his own company, doing utility work. He realized he’d have to educate himself so he could keep the Knotweed off his own property and also inform others. His nature, and his work experience had provided him with the persistence required to deal with this unwelcome intrusion into his life.

Knotweed does not play by the usual rules. According to the Invasive Species Council of B.C., the root systems can go down to a depth of 2 to3 metres and extend 20 metres laterally. Authorities on the plant agree it can penetrate and undermine concrete foundations and blacktop surfaces. When engineers found it growing along the massive concrete footings of the Lions Gate and the Iron Workers Second Narrows bridges, they deemed it a safety threat requiring chemical intervention.

Close up of Japanese Knotweed root, photo by Joe Cindrich
Close up of Japanese Knotweed root, photo by Joe Cindrich

Digging it out just multiplies the weed. The District of Sechelt attempted to deal with Knotweed by digging down 3 meters and removing it. The weed reappeared the following year, having doubled in size. If even one centimetre of root remains in the soil, it can generate new plants.

The Okanagan and Similkameen Invasive Species Society (OASISS) states, “Knotweeds are very hardy and spread aggressively. They are capable of blocking access to waterways, reducing sightlines along roads and fences, shading out native plants, and increasing soil erosion.” Their website says Knotweed has been observed in Penticton, Oliver, Keremeos and Summerland.

Joe Cindrich holding a syringe & searching for Japanese Knotweed
Joe Cindrich holding a syringe & searching for Japanese Knotweed

Joe booted up his computer and showed us photos of the formerly dense Knotweed growth on the neighbouring property. He then invited us to tramp with him through high wet grass to view the present state of the land. “I started spraying the small plants with 20 per cent Roundup in 2013,” he said. Holding up a large ominous appearing bovine syringe he said, “I injected plants over 2 feet tall with100 per cent Roundup.” In spite of his vigorous, disciplined campaign, we saw a number of young plants all over the property. The websites dealing with Knotweed pretty much all agree 5 to 10 years are required to eradicate the weed. If the program is halted before its all gone, the clever weed takes this as a cue to again thrive.

Japanese Knotweed plants after innoculation in foreground, healthy plants in background, photo by Joe Cindrich
Japanese Knotweed plants after innoculation in foreground, healthy plants in background, photo by Joe Cindrich

By now our runners were soaked from the deep wet grass, but Joe’s willingness to share his knowledge made it well worth while. “It’s a huge problem in Britain,” he told us. “The UK government estimates that the cost of controlling Knotweed has hit the equivalent of $3 billion. If you have Knotweed on your property you can’t get a building permit. In Europe you won’t get a mortgage.”

Various government departments, including the Ministry of Transport, have grave concerns about Knotweed. It is expensive and very difficult to eradicate. The BC Weed Control Act requires citizens to take action against invasive species on their property. An owner who fails to do this may have to pay for the eradication.

Ignoring Knotweed is to invite destruction of property. If it comes our way, will we recognize it? Will we have the tenacity, patience and determination to battle it for 5 to 10 years? Joe Cindrich has the endurance. He’s that kind of man.

The Sternes Of Coalmont

Bob & Diane Sterne in front of their home & motel office.
Bob & Diane Sterne in front of their home & motel office.

The drive from Hedley to Coalmont would have been worthwhile just to drink Bob Sterne’s richly flavoured coffee and sample Diane’s lemon loaf. Between Princeton and Tulameen, Coalmont is somewhat off what we call the beaten path. At one stretch there is a steep drop to the valley below. I’d want a 4×4 pickup for the trip in winter.

Linda and I had not met the Sternes previously but we already suspected they aren’t the type who wring their hands and say “someone should do something about it.” They initially came to the Coalmont area to do gold panning. “We fell in love with the community,” Diane told us. “Over several years we became quieter and quieter on our trips back to Anmore. This was where we wanted to be. At that time I was a dental assistant and Bob was building radio controlled sail boats.”

Set in a spacious valley Coalmont is, for the most part, peaceful and idyllic. In 2003 the Sternes made the momentous decision to buy the former CPR pay office in this community of about 85 citizens. “The building had no electricity, no plumbing and no septic tank,” Bob recalled. It was a daunting decision for other reasons as well. Even now, Coalmont has no doctor, nurse or first responder, no cell service, stores, or fire department. Also, there is no community water system so each property must have its own well.

Web photo of the Mozey-On-Inn
Web photo of the Mozey-On-Inn

They transformed the sadly neglected structure into a home and 3 unit motel, and named it the Mozey-On-Inn. Wanting to retain the aura of the earlier gold mining era, signs on the units designate them as Bank, Saloon and Barbershop.

With virtually no services people must come together in an emergency. “When Bob had a cardiac arrest while shovelling snow in the driveway,” Diane said, “people came to help. I had purchased a defibrillator some years ago after my Dad had a heart attack. A neighbour put the paddles on Bob. The Tulameen fire chief lives here and showed up with oxygen. Without the help of neighbours, Bob would be dead. It was a reminder that as a community we need to be self-reliant and help each other.”

The Sternes are passionate about preserving local history, and in our 2 hour conversation there were frequent references to the past. “Walt Smart owned the only grocery store in town,” Bob said. “He let people run up a tab. Sometimes they couldn’t pay and when they moved out of town, they gave him their property. He loved the town and stayed here until he died in 2010.”

When we had emptied Bob’s coffee pot, eaten Diane’s delightful lemon loaf and toured the motel, we drove to the Granite Creek Cemetery. “The Granite Creek community was founded in 1885,” Diane said. “By 1886 it was the third largest population centre in B.C.”

The community died when Postmaster Foxcrowle Percival Cooke passed away. Only the cemetery remains and it had deteriorated almost beyond recognition. “Fallen trees were lying across the graves,” Bob said. “The graves were poorly marked and hard to find.” In 2004 the Sternes and others in Coalmont decided to restore it. Using information provided by a funeral director and also notes from a high school research project, they began identifying occupants of the graves. They checked birth and death records at the Vancouver Library.

Bob & Diane Sterne at the Granite Creek cemetery.
Bob & Diane Sterne at the Granite Creek cemetery.

Walking about the now orderly and clean cemetery with Diane and Bob, we concluded that they think of the people in the graves as interesting acquaintances, even friends.

Bob & Diane Sterne posted a map of the Granite Creek cemetery.
Bob & Diane Sterne posted a map of the Granite Creek cemetery.

“We have marked all the known graves,“ Diane said. “I talk to the people when I’m working on their gravesite.” (Don’t worry, she’s totally sane).

Coalmont Hotel
Coalmont Hotel

As we passed one grave, Bob said, “That’s Mary. She was the second wife of Louis Marcotte. He built the Coalmont Hotel.” At another grave Diane said, “that’s Hattie McBride, the Coalmont madam, the second biggest contributor to the community’s WWI machine gun fund.”

As we were about to leave Bob said, “everyone in our community is involved, but people don’t talk about what they do. They just do it.”

“We’re living our dream,” Diane added. “I never want to leave. I want to die here.” Bob nodded agreement.

People waved at us as we were leaving town. If Linda and I weren’t settled in Hedley, Coalmont would be an attractive option.

Margaret Skaar, Not A Bystander

Margaret Skaar
Margaret Skaar

Listening to Margaret Skaar in our home last week, I understood very quickly that she’s a high octane lady who, in the game of life, is not a mere bystander. “I was born in the Lethbridge Hospital the day it opened,” she said. “A year later our family moved to the outskirts of Calgary. When I was about 4 or 5, sometimes my Mom really ticked me off and I’d jump on a street car and ride to my Dad’s downtown office.”

Later, after graduating, she wanted to go to tech school but an aptitude test suggested she pursue a career in the financial sector. Margaret landed a position with CIBC. At age 19, she fell in love and got married to Peter.

The bank put Margaret on a fast track to management. She enrolled in university night classes such as business law, economics, and personnel development. After completing the required twelve courses she was awarded the Fellowship Institute of Canadian Bankers certification.

While still enrolled in these courses, in 1980 the marriage to Peter unravelled. “It was an amicable separation,” she said. “Our 3 children stayed with me.” In addition to family responsibilities, she worked and continued with the courses. It was a test of her determination and resilience.

“When they made me a bank manager,” she said, “I learned to golf so I could hang out with the business crowd. I attended their fancy social functions. The experience helped me realize I was more comfortable with ordinary people, not with the ones who owned the corporations. People think I’m not shy, but with people I don’t know, I am.”

When the man she was dating was transferred to B.C., Margaret moved too. “The bank didn’t have a manager position for me here, so they put me in Consumer Loans. I was delighted. I especially enjoyed dealing with people buying their first home.”

There was a downside for her in this role. “Some people coming for a loan consolidation were making serious mistakes and would come in again for more funds. I could see what they were doing wrong, but I couldn’t help. If they came in for a third consolidation, I had to refuse them. I always referred them upstairs to get advice about money management.”

Desiring companionship again, in 1986 she placed an ad looking for a man who enjoyed camping, fishing and country music. In the same paper, Oly Skaar placed a virtually identical ad. They were married later that year and bought a home in Hedley in 1990. “I learned about Hedley when I did a mortgage for a man buying a home here,” she explained.

After opting for early retirement in 1992, they did a lot of camping and fishing, often at Spence’s Bridge. “We loved taking our grandchildren fishing,” she said.

It wasn’t all joy though. “Everyone in town knows Oly had a serious alcohol issue,” she said. Once again she needed to be strong and resilient. She didn’t walk away from the marriage, and she didn’t wallow in misery.

“I joined Al Anon,” she said. “That gave me a better understanding of what Oly was experiencing, and it helped me cope. When I stopped complaining about the drinking, he didn’t drink as much. We came to have a fun relationship. Sometimes we sat for a couple of hours on the front porch drinking coffee and talking. Staying in the relationship paid off.”

They gave time and energy to the community. “Oly became President of the OAP, now the Hedley Seniors’ Centre, and I was treasurer. In our first year here, Oly served as greeter at the Museum every Saturday and I worked in the kitchen.” When Oly passed away a few years ago, Margaret made the decision to carry on.

Margaret Skaar, cooking eggs for the Hedley Seniors' pancake breakfast.
Margaret Skaar, cooking eggs for the Hedley Seniors’ pancake breakfast.

Currently she is a member of the OAP in Princeton and the Seniors’ Centre in Hedley, belongs to 3 Red Hat Ladies groups, and is treasurer at the Museum. At the Seniors’ Centre she has for 10 years prepared the eggs for the monthly pancake breakfast. Until recently she participated in line dancing 3 days each week. “I used to dance with them at Ridgewood and New Beginnings. I enjoyed that. Now I go only once a week.”

The young child who took the street car to her Dad’s downtown Calgary office, now 73, is employing that early feistiness and strong will to serve her community.

Doctor Assisted Suicide

Unless we’ve endured traumatic physical, emotional, or psychological distress, the current debate concerning doctor assisted suicide may be of little interest to us. It’s an issue I began thinking about some years ago as the result of a difficult personal experience.

A medical practitioner performed a maneuver on me that seriously disturbed my sciatic nerve. Over several days an excruciating, burning pain began radiating downward from my back to my toes. I wasn’t told one of my pain prescriptions could induce suicidal thoughts. The prospect of living out my years with this throbbing, burning pain almost unhinged me. I sat on the floor of our living room many nights, thinking about dragging myself to the nearest busy street and waiting for a large truck. It was a realization this act would be grossly unfair to Linda that held me back. Fortunately, a couple of people urged me to visit a doctor who had helped them and in time my condition improved.

Dad visiting with his grandson.
Dad visiting with his grandson.

I didn’t feel I had handled my adversity well. Then my 89 year old Dad broke a hip and was placed in a longterm care facility where all residents required wheelchairs and extensive help. This presented me with an opportunity to observe the response of people living with extremely depleted health.

Some, like Ruby, felt they had been betrayed by their bodies. A former airline hostess, she still retained vestiges of the startlingly good looks that must have once turned the heads of male passengers. Now in her early 40’s, she had MS and the bitter tone and words suggested she considered her life finished. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a support network to sustain her.

In the room next to Dad was Ron, whose ALS was already well advanced. He and his wife understood the illness would relentlessly destroy his ability to function. During the half year I knew him, Ron was rarely alone, except at night. A virtually endless stream of family and friends visited, even though they could no longer understand his words. He loved the people and they loved him. Their presence seemed to give him a reason to live.

One of my favourite residents was Susie. Now in her early 80’s, she had fallen out of a cherry tree several years ago. An adventuresome soul who had loved action, she now sat quietly in her wheelchair in the dining room, unable to propel herself. In spite of this cruel twist of fate, her eyes twinkled and she smiled when I crouched beside her to visit. A few days before she passed away, she reached for my hand and pronounced a blessing on me in her native tongue.

Dad’s response to the unkind ravages of life gave me a further example that has impacted my thinking. He had once been a respected heavy equipment operator and active in the community. Music had long been a passion and now in the facility he still played the cello, although with enormous difficulty.

At night 2 care aides used a lift to place him in bed. In the morning they dressed him and lifted him into his wheelchair. On bath day the lift lowered him into the tub and an aide washed him. He required assistance for going to the bathroom. Toward the end, he was too weak to feed himself.

Because of his age and helpless state, several nurses said, “you need to give him permission to die.” Very reluctantly, I followed this advice. “No,” Dad said firmly, “I still like to live.” He never became bitter, never let the experience take away his sense of dignity.

Like Ron and Susie, Dad had gathered inner strength, built strong relationships with the extended family, and resisted feeling sorry for himself when circumstances turned against him. He had come to a place of deep inner contentment which served him well in this state of virtually complete helplessness.

Having experienced pain myself, I cannot argue with those who long to die because their bodies are wracked by intense, uncontrollable pain. Nor with those who know their condition will deteriorate into a vegetative state. I do feel though that our society may be rushing too quickly along a path fraught with dangerous and unanticipated perils. My hope is that we can be wiser, more compassionate in offering help to incapacitated people. At least in some cases, there may be happier options than suicide.

Protecting the Dream in Cawston

Corey Brown, an organic farmer in Cawston, BC
Corey Brown, an organic farmer in Cawston, BC

It is common for “creatures of the city” to dream of buying a few acres in the country and settling into a peaceful, idyllic life. For Corey and Colleen Brown, the dream became a reality 11 years ago when they gave up the comforts and amenities of Victoria and bought just over 5 acres in Cawston. Since then they have become aware they must join with others in preserving the dream for themselves, their children, and fellow residents of the Similkameen Valley.

Colleen, a Dietitian, was at work when Linda and I visited the farm last week. “We wanted to raise our children in the country,” Corey said to explain their move here. “Also, I wanted to farm. It’s fortunate we came when prices were still low.”


Walking about the spacious domain of his 99 contented, clucking chickens and listening to Corey, it was easy to mistakenly conclude he is simply one more farmer passionate about his small scale operation. Certainly he is passionate and credits neighbour Moses Brown (no relation) for helping him get started in organic farming. People are eager to buy the eggs. In summer he also raises up to 500 broilers. From Harry Jones, former owner of Iceberg Meats, he learned the art of humanely slaughtering chickens. Interestingly, he was once a committed vegetarian. Currently he is involved with several organic farming organizations and vice president of the Penticton Farmers Market.

Sitting at the kitchen table of their comfortable home, another of Corey’s passions began to emerge, hesitantly at first. He doesn’t like to draw attention to himself.

“I’m deeply involved in the organic scene,” he said, “but I realize one day my 2 children may ask what I did about issues like pollution in the Similkameen River. I want to have an answer for them.” He paused for a moment, then continued, “I want to work with others to create an awareness of the threats facing our community and the entire valley. I feel people need to realize if we’re not involved, we’ll be sold out. Too often people aren’t interested until they understand an issue will impact them personally. It’s important to help them make that connection.”

To this end, under the auspices of “Similkameen Okanagan Organic Producers Association” he recently showed a Naomi Klein documentary film in Cawston. Klein has authored several books, including “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate”. He had expected younger people in the audience, but it was mostly Boomers who came. “I did it because I wanted people to be up to date with what’s happening.”

Corey expresses his views with clarity and vigour in conversation, but he’s reluctant to speak in public. “Sometimes after saying something in a meeting, I feel that I didn’t get it right. Then I think I should have remained quiet.”

He realizes though that if people remain silent, “the world will roll over us. We need to push against the boundaries that hold us back.”
He works with others to help people make the connection between their own lives and the destructive forces at work in their community and the larger society. He seems to understand intuitively the words of author John C. Maxwell who has said, “one is too small a number to achieve great things.”

On February 29, from 6 to 9 pm, Friends of the Similkameen River will sponsor a public forum at the Cawston Hall. “It will be a night about water in our valley,” he said.

Sometimes people ask how he continues to be positive when it’s so dark. “I tell them to do some thing,” he said. “If a lot of us do something, we can make things happen. I feel there is a vast grass roots movement around the world.”

Corey views himself simply as one of many seeking to produce positive outcomes in Cawston and the entire Similkameen Valley. He is quick to express gratitude for the encouragement he has received from organic growers and others advocating for the environment and healthy communities. “There’s a core of hard working people in the valley,” he said at the end. “When I’m involved with them, I feel like I’m accomplishing something important. Colleen and I know we must do our part to keep the dream alive for ourselves and others.”