A lively crowd of about 70 attended the Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas celebration hosted by the Keremeos, BC Senior Centre this past Sunday. The function featured a dance with live music followed by a Ukrainian potluck.
“We’ve been doing this for about 17 or 18 years,” Kadia Schwetje, wife of the Centre’s President said. “There are quite a few Ukrainian people in Keremeos and the surrounding area. They come from places like Omak, Penticton, Princeton and Osoyoos. Snowbirds from other provinces also show up.”
A mellow, surprisingly pleasant blend of tunes was provided by the Centre’s house band, plus several extras. “The core band has been together for about 20 years,” Kadia said. “They play for our weekly dances.” It was evident that people were there to have a good time, and the dance floor filled up quickly. One white haired man was heard to say jokingly, “I’m looking for a woman to dance with me. Any woman will do.” Moments later he was on the dance floor with a trim, good looking woman.
By 4:30 the rich aroma of Ukrainian cooking turned the crowd’s attention to food. There were traditional dishes like cabbage rolls, perogies, and Ukrainian sausage with sauerkraut. Kadia, who is not Ukrainian, volunteered that there were a number of items whose names she could not pronounce.
According to Kadia, the Senior Centre has about 250 members. “We have exercise sessions, card games, floor curling, crafts and bingo. There are also other activities, plus services that we provide to the community. Everyone is welcome,” she said. “It costs only $20. a year to become a member.”
I asked Lynn Wells for permission to post the following letter, because it says something about the flavour of our little community of Hedley.
Dear Hedley Seniors’ Centre friends and members:
It was an outstanding Christmas Day dinner at the Hedley Seniors’ Centre. We were expecting around 75 people. We seated 90. Fortunately, we cooked six turkeys with stuffing, two hams, 30 pounds of potatoes, as well as sweet potatoes, turnips, brussel sprouts, carrots, peas, and dinner rolls, accompanied by buckets of gravy and cranberry sauce. The dinner ended with some delectable desserts including pumpkin pies, black forest cake, cookies, Christmas cake, and much more. Everyone had more than enough to eat, and we sent five dinners to residents who were unable to attend the dinner.
The biggest note of appreciation goes to all those who donated money, food and, especially their time. Santa has his elves, the Seniors’ Centre has its wonderful volunteers. A special thank you goes to Beryl Wallace, Peggy Terry, Ruth Woodin, Nancy Draper, Margaret Skaar and her son Fred, Robin Ford, Cherie Ruprecht, Joy Pillipow & her grand-daughter Sophie, Lynne Mackay, Patt Melville, Cindy Regier, Michelle Jacobs, Marie Jacobs, Russ Stoney, Dave Peers, and Gary Ross. They shopped for supplies, set up and decorated tables, prepared food, cooked, delivered food, served food, and helped to clean up afterwards.
The Hitching Post and the Nickel Plate Restaurants also contributed. I apologize if I have missed anyone. especially those who brought food to the dinner or who worked silently in the background. Thank you to all those people, too. This Christmas dinner is an annual event at the Hedley Seniors’ Centre. It is a way to bring the community together on a day of celebration and giving. Thank you, everyone.
And now, on behalf of the Board of Directors and members of the Hedley Seniors’ Centre,
The blaze that destroyed the aged Tillotson home in Hedley on Remembrance Day is still stirring hearts in the Similkameen valley and beyond. It was the home of Joan Tillotson, her daughter Amy Schindel, and Amy’s 3 year old son Joey. There were many hugs for the two women at a fund raiser potluck Sunday evening. The highlight for Joey was a cake with candles to celebrate his 3rd birthday.
In a conversation with Amy after the meal, the young mother said “We lost everything, but I have Joey. That’s the most important thing. He was sleeping on a couch when my mother and I stepped out onto the porch for a couple of minutes. I suddenly noticed a glow and ran in. Joey was crying. The fire was spreading so quickly all I could do was pick him up and run out.”
“Joey was traumatized,” Joan said. “For a few days, he didn’t talk. He just made noises. Even now he’s frightened when he sees fire, or if there is a loud bang.”
“I know I should have grabbed my wallet to save my ID,” Joan added, “but it was hot and the house was filling with smoke. It all happened so quickly my mind went blank. We got out with only the clothes we were wearing.”
The Tillotson family moved into the two story house in 1954. Joan was age 4 at the time. Later, as a young adult she moved out.
“Amy was the daughter of my sister,” she said. “When my sister died, I adopted Amy. She’s my daughter. My Dad passed away when he was 93 and the house was empty, so we moved back in.”
The potluck, held at the Hedley Community Club, was one of several ongoing fundraisers in the community. It was spearheaded by Doug & TJ Bratt, owners of the Hedley Country Market. TJ said, “The donation box at the store has already garnered approximately one thousand dollars. Pointing to a large jar brimming with donations, she said “There’s probably another five hundred in there.” About 60 people were at the event.
Funds are also being raised by the Hedley Seniors’ Centre and the Hedley Grace Church. Because there was no insurance on the home and everything was burned, there is also a need for clothing and household items. Online donations can be made by transferring funds to email@example.com.
“The moral support of so many people has been wonderful,” Amy said at the end, a note of emotion in her voice. “There are a lot of good people in this valley.”
We virtually never hear the blare of the siren at the Fire Hall, except to announce fire practice Tuesday at 7:00 pm. When we heard it Friday, Nov. 11th, we found it hard to believe there might actually be a fire. Probably not, I thought, but I hurriedly put on shoes and jacket and rushed out to be sure. A huge glow on Hospital Hill quickly caught my attention. In the light of the fire, a black plume of smoke was visible, rising several hundred feet into the dark sky.
It was the Tillotson house, a large, very old 2 story wood structure, the home of Amy Schindel, her young son Joey, and her mother. Set against the mountain, bright orange flames had already engulfed the entire building. The fire department had arrived quickly, and was spraying the trees to ensure the fire would not spread up the mountain.
Fortunately, the 3 occupants had managed to get out of the building safely. We learned later that it had started as a grease fire in the kitchen. It was reported later that they had attempted to extinguish it with baking soda. But this was not successful and the fire continued to spread quickly.
In the Sunday morning service at the Hedley Grace Church, Pastor Graham Gore, former manager of the Fire Department advised “the best way to extinguish a grease fire is to smother it with a blanket. Never throw water on a grease fire. It just makes it spread more rapidly.”
Unfortunately the building was not covered by insurance. Several organizations in town are raising money for the family. There is a jar for donations at the Hedley Country Market. The Seniors’ Center and the Hedley Grace church are also inviting contributions. The church has pledged a donation of $200.00 and members are adding to it. Lydia Sawicki has also set up an account for donations to be made directly to Amy by etransfer at firstname.lastname@example.org Although several outbuildings were saved, the fire entirely destroyed the main structure.
Last week Linda and I visited the soup kitchen run by the Keremeos Community Church. We were sitting at a table with Mike Andersen, a man with the physique of a heavy weight boxer, but not the intimidating demeanor. “The 4 men on the other side of the room wouldn’t have eaten today if they had not come in,” he said. He smiled and waved to a couple walking through the door, then turned back to us. “We serve soup to the community every Thursday. Some come because they’re hungry. Others hope someone will accept them and listen to them. People also come to support us in showing a friendly face and outreached hand to the community. We’re happy to feed them all.”
Looking around, I saw microphones along one side of the spacious room, an indication that on Sundays this is a worship area. Today casually dressed people of all ages were sitting at 4 long tables, chatting animatedly and laughing. A few men wore caps, suggesting the dress code is relaxed. People seemed at ease, enjoying the company and the soup.
I had sensed the welcoming atmosphere the moment we walked through the door. Kathy greeted us warmly and guided us to a table. She returned with bowls of steaming chicken vegetable soup. Also a bun, coffee, and dessert. She rises early each soup day and bakes the delicious white buns.
Mike, a farmer for 20 years, has broken horses and trained trail horses. He still rides his large sturdy mule. This morning he had arrived at the kitchen at 8:00 to prepare the soup. “The vegetables we use are fresh,” he said. “We comply with all Health Branch regulations.” Noticing that my bowl was empty he asked, “would you like a re-fill?”
The volunteers running the kitchen are a committed and diverse lot. Joanne said, “I’ve been where some of the people are. The church rescued our family. Now I want to give something back. It’s good to see people low in life feeling loved and accepted.” It was her first day in the kitchen.
Like Mike, George Spencer has been there from the beginning. Before Keremeos, he worked 40 years as a bartender and waiter in a Vancouver hotel. “Alcohol, crack cocaine and crystal meth ruled my life those days,” he told us. “I had tried recovery programs without success. It was God who delivered me. I came to Keremeos to escape that scene. I agreed to come to this church only if my dog was allowed in. That was ok with the church.” Once introverted, he laughingly gives slinging beer credit for preparing him to interact easily with the people who come for soup.
“There’s a story behind each person who comes in,” Mike said. “Some have serious needs.
Today a young man walked out with a jacket that was donated this morning. Some rarely get out of their home, except when they come here. Everyone needs to feel accepted and loved.”
A donation box is placed in the opening to the kitchen, not where people will easily see it. “There’s no requirement to put anything in,” George said. “Those who can usually do. Also, some ladies from local churches contribute desserts. We get financial help from individuals and businesses. Valu Plus donates food. Our costs are pretty much covered.”
The emphasis seems not to be on proselytizing. “We just want to reach out to people and touch their lives,” George said. “It’s by our example we want to show them the love of Jesus.” I noticed a couple wave at him as they were about to walk out the door. He smiled and waved, then turned his attention back to us. “Sometimes people are dealing with difficult situations and they ask us to pray for them.”
They’ve been serving meals to 40 to 50 people between 11 am and 1 pm two days a week since February of this year. Mondays it’s sandwiches and Thursdays it’s soup and a bun. For Christmas Day they will move their operation to the more spacious Seniors Centre and serve a special meal to individuals who need a place where they will feel welcome and not be alone.
We found the excitement of the soup kitchen volunteers contagious and uplifting. Judging by the ebb and flow of voices and laughter, they are providing much more than just physical nourishment.
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.”
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”).
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.
“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!
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.
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.
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.
A small town perspective on people, community, politics and environment.