Category Archives: People

Iva McLaren, Everyone’s Granny

Demolition of the McLaren Home
Demolition of the McLaren Home

In 1940 William and Iva Mclaren travelled by train with their 9 children from Saskatchewan to the Lumby/Cherryville area. Hearing there were mining jobs in Hedley, they loaded furniture, children and chickens onto a truck and travelled here, hoping for a new beginning. At that time the community was a bustling gold mining centre. With their large family, William’s job at the Nickle Plate Mine was sorely needed and welcome. Last week the McLaren home, nestled among trees alongside 20 Mile Creek, was taken down. The demolition was a reminder that their simple way of life is gone forever.

When Linda and I had a conversation with their granddaughter Marianne McLaren recently, we found she has fond recollections of them, especially of her grandmother. We have been told by long time residents, Derek Lilly and Terry Sawiuk, Iva was everyone’s Granny.

Talking about her grandmother’s early years, Marianne said, “Grandma was 9 and had only a grade 4 education when her parents took her out of school and sent her to a farm to help with the children and do housework. Grandfather was a worker on the same farm, but 20 years older. It took time, but they fell in love and were married.”

Marianne’s family moved to Ontario when she was 5 so she didn’t get to know her grandfather well before he passed away in 1962. She does remember that he was quiet and laid back, and let grandmother make many day to day decisions. “But there was never any doubt that he was the final authority in the home. Grandma rented their first home, the house next to the former ball park, now owned by Dave Peers.”

Marianne thinks of her Grandma as a real go getter. “She joined every group in town and, in partnership with Jean Granger, ran a bingo in the Senior’s Centre. She also opened a cafe in the building on Scott Avenue where Elef Christensen now has a store.”

Iva frequently came to the aid of ill individuals, preparing meals and cleaning their home. One of these left her some money in his will. Another, Bob MacKenzie, sold her a lot with a small house at a very good price. In 1945 the still growing McLaren clan moved into this house. Located on Webster street on the far side of the bridge over 20 mile creek, it’s still an idyllic setting.

The 1948 flood left the house perched precariously on the bank, but the family continued to live in it for a time. This was also the year Iva, now 48, delivered her 12th child. With a large family their options were limited.

When their small home on the creek became too endangered by erosion of the bank, Iva moved the family into 2 small shacks behind her cafe. In 1958-59, a son and a son in law dug a partial basement by hand and built a new house on the family’s property. Much of the lumber was hauled down from the no longer operating Mascot mine. Three years later William passed away, leaving Iva to carry on alone.

Idyllic setting of McLaren house.
Idyllic setting of McLaren house.

When Marianne returned to BC as a young woman, she and Iva sometimes did cooking projects together. One day while pickling cucumbers, Marianne observed that Grandma wasn’t measuring ingredients. Appalled at the large quantity of salt being added, she exclaimed, “Grandma, that’s far too much salt!” Nonplussed, Iva said, “It will work.”

In another cooking project Iva said, “stop using that dirty sugar!” Surprised, Marianne asked what she meant. Iva’s explanation helped her understand that with the advent of white sugar, manufacturers’ advertising had begun referring to brown sugar as “dirty.”

Grandma didn’t buy bread,” Marianne said. “She baked her own. She grew a garden and canned the produce.”

After the children were out of the home, Iva was able to relax more and have fun. “Grandma and several girlfriends began taking the bus to Vegas,” Marianne said. When I asked if they gambled, she replied, “oh yes, they gambled!”

To help Iva, Marianne’s father, Ernest McLaren, bought the property and paid maintenance expenses. When Iva was 86, her son Tommy moved her to the Legion apartments in Princeton. She passed away at age 97.

Marianne and her partner, Mark Woodcock, now own the property and will put up a new home. Undoubtedly William and Iva would be pleased.

Mark Woodcock & Marianne McLaren
Mark Woodcock & Marianne McLaren

Allan Gill, Not A Conventional Thinker

Allan Gill
Allan Gill

When former Similkameen Valley veterinarian Allan Gill expressed enthusiasm for the beauty of slugs, I thought I had misunderstood him. “You didn’t say slugs, did you?” I asked. He assured me he had. For me that was a novel concept. In the course of our conversation I was to learn he is not a conventional thinker.

Allan was 4 when his family moved to Princeton in 1943. His father, formerly a member of an elite unit in the police force, had been appointed as the local game warden. He is still fondly recalled by area seniors.

Standing at 6 feet, 4 inches, Allan has the height and robust physique of a big league quarterback. “My brother Carl and I are identical twins,” he said. “Most people can’t tell us apart.” It occurred to me that seeing 2 very tall men of identical appearance might result in a sensation of double vision.

IMG_3589

At UBC, Allan became interested in comparative physiology, but along with 8 others taking a first year biology course, he failed. Fortunately, he had several mentors. “The registrar, CB Wood, kind of tucked us under his wing,” he said. “Sometimes he took us to his home. I stayed in touch with him after graduating.”

Allan obtained a doctorate in veterinarian medicine at the University of Saskatchewan. Then, in the mid-eighties, he didn’t hesitate when he had an opportunity to take over a 2 day a week small animal practice in Princeton. “My base was in Kelowna where I had a full service animal hospital. I had a plane. That made it possible to serve people in a number of British Columbia communities. I also flew to the Yukon 2 times a year and went from town to town treating animals. Sometimes, especially in rural areas, people asked for advice concerning their own medical issues. Often people in out of the way places were lonely and just wanted to talk. Getting to know these people gave me a lot of joy.”

He wasn’t a small thinker. A 1-800 line enabled him to practise animal medicine across Canada. In one case a hunter deep in the bush asked about removing porky pine quills from his dog. “He knew he had to get the quills out,” Allan said, “but he hadn’t thought of checking inside his mouth and ears.”

As he talked, it became evident Allan continues to have a special place in his heart for people in the Similkameen Valley. ” I visit as often as possible. I stay in contact with about 15 people here, most of whom became friends when they brought their pets to the clinic.”

It’s probably fortuitous they enjoy visiting this area regularly. Recently Allan became aware of a rumour making the rounds in Princeton that he has Alzheimer’s. Another rumour suggested he had died. Apparently he’s one of those larger than life individuals people like to speculate about.

Animals, like people, are drawn to him. Bill Day, a part-time resident of Hedley said, “one day I took Tobi (a small black Terrier Cross he shares with partner Lynn) on a walk with Allan. When we returned, Tobi was so enamoured with Allan he wanted to go with him, not me.”

In time, Allan became intrigued by the faces of his elderly clients. “I began asking if I could photograph them,” he said. “Then I started inviting people I spotted in town.”

Among those he has photographed is Joe Bell, a sniper in the U.S. army in Vietnam. He also photographed Rollo Ceccon, a local contractor who many times moved the Princeton caboose. Last year he featured 16 of his portraits at a showing in Princeton.

Now in retirement, Allan’s curious mind continues to embrace new opportunities. One of these is x-ray floral photography. With technical assistance from collaborators who have expertise in radiology and photo manipulation, he is able to create exquisite images.

At this point he shared one of the secrets of his success in life. “I’ve had lots of help,” he said. “Over the years I’ve learned that to accomplish things, I need to find people with skills I don’t have.”

At the end of our conversation Allan Gill said, “I’m surprised that at my age I’m still fascinated by things that interested me as a 12 year old. I’m grateful I can still do things I love. I feel very, very lucky.”


Linda Larson, Wiser And More Experienced

Linda Larson
Linda Larson

Before Linda Larson arrived at our home for a conversation last Thursday, I read the column I had written about her 2 years ago. At that time she said, “In my childhood, mom struggled to put food on the table. She baked bread. We had butter every 2 to 3 months. Other kids at school wore store bought clothes. My mom made mine.” Since those early meager times, Linda has attained considerable success in politics, initially as mayor of Oliver and more recently as the Boundary/Similkameen MLA. I was interested in her perception of what it’s like to play a role (even if not a high echelon one) in Christy Clark’s high roller style of politics. I also wanted to know if success had in any way tainted her values and principles.

Sitting at the round table in our sun room, eating my wife Linda’s egg sandwiches and bean salad, we engaged in a pretty frank discussion of life in provincial politics. I was watchful for the usual escape hatches that politicians duck into to evade uncomfortable questions.

I began our conversation by suggesting that a lot of politicians express a desire at the outset of their career to make their community and country a better, safer, more liveable place, but before long they become jaded. “It is important to come into politics with the belief you can make things better,” she replied. “Politics is a game, but not a frivolous game. You have to learn the rules and make them work for you. As an individual, you aren’t powerful, but as a member of a team you are.”

She reflected for a moment. “If I want to get things done, I need to be a team member. Democracy is a challenging system, but it’s the best in the world.”

In response to my question, she cited several instances where she has obtained results. A transition house, a dam project and an irrigation system. Also a 10 year contract for the Grist Mill in Keremeos.

It’s complex,” she observed. “Sometimes it takes a lot of time and persevering. Three years ago a man came to me with the request that disabled motorcyclists be permitted to park in places designated as disabled parking. “It was quite a process,” she said. “A number of organizations and several government departments were involved. Now you can get a sticker for a motorcycle licence that lets you use a parking space reserved for the disabled.”

She told us that work on individual files is handled by a staffer in her office. “When a man didn’t have the funds to take a bus to Vancouver for cancer treatments, Pat knew who to talk to. She has dealt with 700 cases over the past 4 years. She really knows how to produce results. This allows me to work on larger, complex issues that require engaging various levels of government.”

About 95 percent of people are great, Linda told us. “I love my work and I love the people. When someone is angry, I know something has happened. We have to try to fix it. Only about 5 percent are negative, but they are also the most vocal. Dealing with them has taught me I have a thicker skin than I realized.”

Linda acknowledges there have been disappointments. “In my riding natural gas is not available to a number of homes.

Those people are hit hard by high electricity costs. I had hoped for more from the recent BCEU report.” Her face registered concern. “We can’t just tell a government body what to do,” she said. “A rule change can affect the entire province. Government needs to look at social, environmental and cost implications when making changes. I feel though there is a better way and we need to find it. I will continue to work on it.”

I sensed that her concern regarding exorbitant hydro rates is deep and genuine. She has the experience to know this will not be an easy fix. She’ll need allies. Her statement that she will continue working on it seemed much more than a convenient line to please voters.

After our 90 minute conversation, I had a better understanding of how government functions. Linda didn’t duck into escape hatches and I felt pretty certain she has not been unduly influenced by the flamboyant, off the cuff style of her leader. Still Linda Larson, but wiser and more experienced.

Linda Larson on the campaign trail.
Linda Larson on the campaign trail.

Vonnie Lavers, Green Party Candidate

Vonnie Lavers, Green Party Candidate for Boundary-Similkameen
Vonnie Lavers, Green Party Candidate for Boundary-Similkameen

When Green Party candidate Vonnie Lavers said she once worked as an executive assistant to the president of Syncrude Canada, I needed to mentally pause. This didn’t align easily with my perception of her party. Aren’t Green and Syncrude as incompatible as oil and water?

In a wide ranging conversation in the sun room of our home in Hedley, Vonnie talked freely about her life, beginning with the early years in Port Saunders, a small community in Newfoundland. We would learn that although she is committed to the preservation of our environment, life experience has alerted her to a variety of additional societal challenges. “We lived in poverty the first 8 years of my life,” she said in answer to my question. “I was the second oldest of 8 children. My parents are Metis and I’m also Metis. I did housework, picked berries, helped bake fruit pies, cleaned fish. We ate moose, bear, rabbits, fish, plants and berries.” Her early experiences gave her an appreciation for the role a healthy environment plays in sustaining all life. “We need to think about the future of our children.”

We began to see Vonnie’s grit and capacity to be proactive when she spoke of her time in a trades and technology college after high school. “I received a phone call from my parents one day,” she recalled. “They said I’d have to quit my studies. There wasn’t money to pay the $35 a week room and board. I had worked and had enough hours for EI, but being in school made me ineligible.”

She reflected for a moment, then smiled. “I sat on the doorstep of MP John Crosbie’s office 3 days. I guess he decided I wasn’t going away so he invited me in. After hearing me out, he arranged for me and other students to collect EI. That took away a lot of anxiety.”

After completing her courses, she managed a summer government work project. When she overheard 2 men talking about opportunities in Fort McMurray, she told her mother she’d like to go there to work. The response was, “we’ll have to see what Dad says.” Undeterred, Vonnie replied, “you’d better persuade him because I’m going.”

The move to Alberta would be important in her education outside the classroom. She would grow further in her understanding of the complex issues every society must contend with.

In Fort McMurray her college training and work experience persuaded John Lynn, president of Syncrude, to hire her as an assistant. During these years she witnessed the prospering of Syncrude when oil prices rose, and also the difficult times when prices declined sharply. She recalls seeing a bumper sticker saying, “please God, let there be another boom. I promise not to pee it away this time.”

The years at Syncrude gave her an understanding of the role natural resources play in providing good jobs. Extensive travel and reading alerted her to the need to ensure our environment is not overly exploited. “Even the Saudis are diversifying, moving into renewable energy. We need to allocate more funds for research and the development of alternative sources. There are good job and business prospects in this.”

She’s still enthusiastic about an opportunity she was given at Syncrude to make a positive contribution outside the corporate offices. A committee she chaired donated $3 million annually, primarily to child related programs and the arts.

Growing up with 6 sisters and a brother gave Vonnie a keen appreciation for family. “Our entire society is based on family,” she observed. “It’s important we sit down together for supper. We also need to be connected outside the family. We can’t just be taking all the time. We have to give back. Family and friends support us in the valleys of life.”

The president of Syncrude became her mentor and encouraged her to prepare for further accomplishments. At age 28 she enrolled in Mount Royal College in Alberta. Since then work, community involvements and business ventures have broadened her perspective. She can speak knowledgeably about Portugal’s response to drug and mental health issues, depletion of wild life in Zimbabwe or an apartment building in New York where at Thanksgiving the tenants come together around long tables in the hallway for a potluck meal.

Vonnie has an offer on her Kelowna home and plans to move to the Boundary/Similkameen constituency. This Green candidate is about much more than just the environment.

Green Party Candidate Vonnie Lavers with Dave Cursons, Campaign Manager
Green Party Candidate Vonnie Lavers with Dave Cursons, Campaign Manager

Poundmaker, A Role Model For Today’s Politicians

This painting of Chief Poundmaker was created by Richard Lindemere, grandfather of Hedley's Bill Day
This painting of Chief Poundmaker was created by Richard Lindemere, grandfather of Hedley’s Bill Day

In this 150th year of Canadian nationhood, our politicians could benefit from an examination of the life of Poundmaker, the Saskatchewan Cree chief. He lived during a time when his people were in great distress and turmoil. White settlers were invading the prairies and pushing his people off their land. The immense buffalo herds on which they depended for their livelihood were being hunted relentlessly. Government treaties were forcing them onto reserves and restricting their movements.

Born in 1842, Poundmaker was the son of a Stoney father and a mixed blood mother. His uncle was an influential chief of the Eagle Hills Cree. Later he was adopted by Crowfoot, chief of the Blackfeet, and lived there for a time before returning to his people.

Painting of Chief Crowfoot by Richard Lindemere
Painting of Chief Crowfoot by Richard Lindemere

He was endowed with leadership ability and probably learned a lot from Crowfoot. Robert Jefferson, farm instructor on the Poundmaker Reserve said later, “his bearing was eminently dignified and his speech so well adapted to the occasion as to impress every hearer with his earnestness and his views.”

In 1876 the Indians of Central Saskatchewan negotiated a treaty with the government of Canada. As a member of the negotiating team, Poundmaker sought to obtain the most beneficial deal for his people. His discerning mind questioned the intent of the government and he expressed his concern. He wanted the government to provide his people with instruction in farming and assistance after the buffalo were gone, in exchange for their land. The government did not promise this and he said, “I cannot understand how I shall be able to clothe my children and feed them as long as the sun shines and the water runs.”

He was made a chief and in 1879 he accepted a reserve. He moved there with 182 followers.

For a time the government did provide food, but in 1883 the rations were reduced. It was rumoured that the rations would soon be eliminated entirely and the people left to starve.

The winter of 1883-84 was extremely severe and Indian agents complained that many people would not live until spring if the government didn’t provide more provisions. The government ignored these pleas and Poundmaker’s young men became restless. Young Crees and Stoneys, as well as Metis, began assembling on the Poundmaker reserve. They set up a warriors lodge in the centre of the camp and thereby, in accordance with tradition, took over decision making. Approximately 1000 people gathered and participated in a Thirst Dance.

The government sent a column of 325 men to arrest a band member. Poundmaker declined to give the man up, and offered himself instead. This was refused and government forces attacked Poundmaker’s camp at Cut Knife Hill. After a 7 hour battle they retreated in disarray. The warriors wanted to pursue them and could have dealt them a serious blow. Poundmaker was still greatly respected by the young men and when he counseled against further bloodshed, they listened.

At the same time, the Metis were in armed opposition to the government. When a group of them captured a government supply train Poundmaker intervened, ensuring they were protected and well treated.

After Louis Riel was defeated at Batoche in 1885, many of Poundmaker’s men wanted to continue the fight but he understood the futility of this. At a gathering of the band, he said, “ I know we are all brave. If we keep on fighting the whites, we can embarrass them, but we will be overcome by their numbers, and nothing tells us that our children will survive. I would sooner give myself up and run the risk of being hanged, than see my tribe and children shot through my fault.”

He and some followers gave themselves up and were immediately arrested. Poundmaker was put on trial for treason. The men he had saved from the Metis testified he had treated them generously and with compassion. Even so, he was sentenced to 3 years in Stony Mountain prison. Due to fear of a full blown revolt if he died in prison, he was released early. In ill health, he departed broken and dispirited, feeling betrayed by the government. While visiting Chief Crowfoot, he died while participating in a dance.

Poundmaker was a man of great honour and dignity. He was guided by a selfless desire to secure a good life for his people. Our nation would benefit if more politicians observed his honourable example.

A Love Story From The Yukon

Vern & Cynthia Armstrong, residents of the Yukon.
Vern & Cynthia Armstrong, residents of the Yukon.

When I learned Vern and Cynthia Armstrong of the Yukon have always chosen to make their home in the cold northern parts of Canada, not along the more hospitable 49th Parallel, my curiosity was aroused. I invited them to our home recently to tell Linda and me about their lives. They were in Keremeos to celebrate the 98th birthday of Cynthia’s father, John Merriman.

Even after 22 years, they are probably still a little surprised to be married. Cynthia had planned to be a vet, but was inspired by a nurse to enter nurses training. “I had no plans to ever marry,” she volunteered, “but I knew my mother was experiencing despair because I didn’t have a husband. I put an ad in the Western Producer. The ad asked, Are you the answer to my mother’s prayers?” She received 28 replies which she read to her sisters at a weekend get-away. “It was hilarious,” she said. “We laughed a lot.”

Those men didn’t have a chance, did they?” Linda interjected.

No,” Cynthia said, smiling at the memory. “They didn’t.”

Vern’s life and career trajectory had been quite different. “I attended school for 8 years and got to grade 6,” he said. “I quit then because I wanted to be a farmer and I figured I had enough education for that.” He never did farm but was good at math and managed a lumber yard for 30 years. He got married to Edith and they had 2 children and also adopted 2 indigenous children. After 43 years, Edith died of cancer.

During the years while Vern was married and raising a family, Cynthia ‘s nursing career and adventuresome spirit took her to a number of remote northern locations. When she was sent to Wollaston Lake in Saskatchewan, the nurse assigned to train her quit and Cynthia was alone, without the experience or instruction she really needed. Then, at isolated nursing stations along Hudson Bay, she was again the only nurse and there was no doctor.

Her adventuresome spirit wasn’t diminished during a year of training in Ottawa. She suggested to the instructor they invite the Governor General of Canada, Madame Sauve` for coffee. The instructor said this would certainly not be accepted. Undeterred, Cynthia sent the note anyway. Not long after, she and her 12 co-trainees and the doubting, astonished instructor, were in Government House having coffee with Madame Sauve`.

When a Christian mission opened a centre in northern Saskatchewan, Cynthia was hired to run the post office and do maintenance. Vern, now a widower, came to the centre as a volunteer. When he offered to drive her to another location she accepted, thinking he would bring along a male co-worker. Already well into her 30’s, she was considered to have no interest in finding a husband. Vern found her attractive though, and decided not to bring his co-worker. “Until then, I always addressed him as Mr. Armstrong,” she said, “but we took the long way back. That was how it started.”

IMG_3509

After they were married, Cynthia suggested they move to the Yukon where Vern had siblings. “I sometimes wondered why they never wanted to leave, even for a visit,” she said. “Now I understand. It really is nice.”

They settled first in Watson Lake where Vern worked with a carpenter, often doing jobs at the local school. Cynthia worked as a home care nurse.

The people in Watson Lake are terrific, they agreed, but the medical care isn’t. “If we needed to fly to a big hospital,” Vern said, “it took an hour for a plane to come from Whitehorse. Also, the town had only 1 grocery store. The 2 gas stations closed at night and the 3 restaurants closed at 7 pm. The coldest it ever got when we were there was -52.”

As people age and are beset by medical issues, it is common to gravitate to a warmer climate and big city medical facilities. Having both had heart attacks, Vern and Cynthia moved to Whitehorse. They have no plans to come further south. “The medical facilities are great,” Cynthia said, “and the government pays most of our medical expenses. It’s called the “golden handcuff.” “There are about 35 restaurants,” Vern added. “Some serve ethnic meals.”

They have learned to live with the cold and to see humour in adversity. The Yukon is fortunate they are there for the long haul.

IMG_3514

Visit From A Homeless Girl

Homeless Girl (morningadvertiser.co.uk)
Homeless Girl (morningadvertiser.co.uk)

Some years ago, on a frigid day in early January, I came upon a young homeless girl huddled under a tree against the wall of our Abbotsford condo.

Surprised, and sensing her misery, I asked “are you OK?”

“Yes,” she responded. Her voice suggested she meant “no.”

“You look cold,” I said, pulling off my thin gloves and handing them to her. She protested a moment and then accepted them willingly. Skinny as an anorexic fashion model, she seemed incredibly vulnerable. Giving her a pair of skimpy gloves was a meager gesture.

“Would you like to come in and get warmed up?” I asked.

She nodded.

In our condo, Linda turned up the fireplace. “Sit here,” she said. “I’ll bring you hot chocolate and a sandwich.”

“Complexa” seemed eager to talk about her life. We learned she was only 16, and for the past year her home had been a couple of tarps and blankets under some trees. Without any prompting, she volunteered she had done some drugs, including crystal meth. “I haven’t done a lot of meth,” she said. “I don’t have much money. I don’t sell my body.”

Still, we observed considerable twitching as she talked and ate. We attributed this to the meth.

Thinking she needed a thorough warming, Linda asked if she wanted a bath or shower. This thought appealed to her and she spent a good two hours in the tub.

We became concerned she might have taken drugs in with her and overdosed. Linda asked several times, “are you OK?”

Possibly the long stint in the bathroom was to forestall going back to the snow-laden streets.

We had a commitment that evening and couldn’t leave her in the building alone, so when she emerged from her long sojourn in the bathroom, we attempted to help her find a place for the night.

“Does your mom live around here?” Linda asked.

“Yes,” Complexa replied, “but we don’t get along. I haven’t seen her in over a year. Her cell number is out of service.”

“Do you have a dad?”

“My dad faded out of my life quite a few years ago,” she responded. “I don’t know where he is.” There was no indication of regret.

“Any brothers or sisters?”

“I have one brother,” she said. “He’s in prison.”

“What about grandparents?”

They were separated and living somewhere in Ontario. We attempted to find a phone number for them, but without success.

I phoned Community Services, the Salvation Army and the Abbotsford Police. I learned that only one small facility took in young girls. No answer there.

In the end, Complexa asked to use our phone and someone agreed to take her in. This person frequented a “drug house” in our neighbourhood.

Before leaving, she ate a bowl of hot stew and a bun, then thanked us warmly. When she walked out of our door, she walked out of our lives. In more than four hours, she had not smiled once.

Living in a strata building with strict rules, I’m not sure we could have done much more for Complexa.

Although I was aware of our limitations, I felt great unease knowing this 16-year-old unsmiling girl must wander about with no hope, no real destination and no connections outside the drug scene.

The social ills that were already prevalent in Abbotsford at that time have also been creeping into the Similkameen valley. In Hedley, addicts freely visit the much complained about drug house on Daly Avenue. Several are reputed to be making drugs available to teens. It seems that as a society we are capable of building impressive edifices, but we do not know how to create a future for drug addicted,homeless youths. The recent provincial budget, in spite of its many spending promises, will not change this.

Can we do more than wring our hands over this condition that is festering in the bowels of our society?

If our community and our larger society are to be healthy and vibrant, we must make a serious commitment to individuals and families in trouble, before they walk too far along this perilous path to utter hopelessness.

In spite of the scarcity of resources, I’d like to say to the addicted homeless Complexas in our communities, “don’t stop looking for help. It’s always too soon to give up.”

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. The principal, counselor, 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.

Magic Of The Model A

Gordon & Sam with the 1930 Model A in winter.
Gordon & Sam with the 1930 Model A in winter.

When I was told Gordon Glen of Keremeos owns a very pretty, restored Model A half ton pickup truck, I was intrigued. Possibly my fascination stems from early experience. I was about age 5 when my parents decided to move from rural Manitoba, not far from Steinbach, to Abbotsford, B.C. Dad bought a Model A, which he was confident could weather this arduous trip via Stevens Pass in the U.S. There were 6 of us in the car, my parents, sister Vi, plus 2 paying passengers. Amazingly, we encountered no mechanical difficulties. For a couple of years Dad drove the Model A every 2 weeks to his job at a logging camp near Hope. Having this experience in my history, I phoned Gordon and invited him and his wife for a visit.

 

Sam Glen
Sam Glen

When they arrived, he introduced us to Sam. Sensing our puzzlement she explained, “My name is Joan but my Dad tagged me with the name “Sam” when I was a kid. It has stuck and I’m happy with it.”

Sitting around the table in our sun room, Gordon said, “We’ve both been married before, we both have a set of twins, and we both lost our spouses through illness. About 5 years ago, a mutual friend introduced us at the Keremeos Legion. We were married a year ago.”

Sam, a slim blonde, has her own experience with vehicles. At one time she owned a T Bird and still has a rag top VW convertible. Equally interesting, she drove semi trailer transport trucks all over Canada and the U.S. for 15 years. Having a Class 1 driver’s licence, she was qualified to drive the fire truck at the Williams Lake volunteer fire department. “Often the men were away at their jobs during the day, so I drove,” she said.

Gordon Glen
Gordon Glen

Our conversation turned to the subject of Model A’s. Gordon’s experience with the iconic cars goes back to his early years. “Our neighbour had a Model A,” he recalled. “One summer my two older brothers worked for him. At the end of the harvest he gave them the old car for payment. We used it to haul potatoes and bring the cows in from the field.”

Eventually the brothers tired of the Model A, parked it in a slough, and departed the farm. “When I was 17,” Gordon said, “I asked for the car and they gave it to me.”

Having heard there are still a significant number of the much loved Model A’s tucked away in garages across this continent, and even around the globe, I asked Gordon what is so special about the car. “They’re almost completely constructed of steel,” he said, “Dodge and Chevrolet used wood and they didn’t last as well. While other companies lowered standards to keep prices down, Ford continually raised the bar and still kept the cost of the car affordable to any working man. They have a simple design and are easy to maintain. Some farmers actually turned their Model A’s into tractors for farm work. Even today all the parts, including tires, are available.”

Then he added, “I’ve been surprised by how well the Model A runs. It’s intended to go up to 45 mph, but is actually capable of higher speeds.”

The Model A was in production from 1927 to 1931. “The first couple of years they were quite small,” he said. “I’ve heard that Henry Ford wanted them small so that couples could not comfortably have sex in them.”

In time, Gordon sold his Model A with the understanding the owner would restore it. Some years later he again wanted to buy one, but owners were not selling. He bought a 1941 half ton Dodge. “It was my answer to not finding a Model A,” he said. “When we moved from Moose Jaw to B.C., driving it was like driving a Sherman tank.”

The 1930 Model A in summer.
The 1930 Model A in summer.

Acting on a tip from his brother Al in Vancouver, he finally located a Model A for sale, a 1930 pickup. “I bought it on the spot,” he said. He also joined the Lions Gate Model A Club and is still a member. “I’ve done a lot of upgrading on the truck. Members share knowledge and tools with other members.”

I don’t golf, do sports, garden, or gamble,” Gordon said at the end. “For me the Model A is a good hobby.” Sam nodded and smiled. She’s just as hooked.