Category Archives: People

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.”

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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.

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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.

Looking For Grandfather

Richard Lindemere, a Self-Portrait (courtesy of Bill Day)
Richard Lindemere, a Self-Portrait (courtesy of Bill Day)

This year being Canada’s 150th birthday, I was pleased to receive “Looking for Grandfather”, an account of an epic motorcycle adventure in 2010 by two B.C. Seniors, Bill Day and cousin Michael Pease. Written by my good friend Bill Day of Hedley (part time), it’s a real life story of their 6 day, 3000 kilometer ride to learn about their mutual grandfather, painter Richard Lindemere. Almost in passing, Bill manages to skillfully weave in fascinating snippets of an earlier time in western Canada.

Bill notes that Grandfather Lindemere had been raised in a privileged environment in London and studied painting in Paris, where he had an apartment on the Champs Elysee. Also, “he spoke beautiful French.” This lavish lifestyle came to a tumultuous end when the family fortune was lost in the great London stock market crash of 1898.

Lindemere returned to England, acquired a very fleet Greyhound and began to gamble in dog racing. The Greyhound brought him some monetary success. Confident of the dog’s speed, he rashly placed a huge bet, for which he had no financial backing, in a particular race. All went well until the animal leapt over a fence to chase the rabbit the promoters used to motivate the dogs.

Unable to pay the gambling debt, at age 24 he fled to Canada. “Like a lot of young middle class Englishmen at that time,” Bill says, “he had dreams of becoming a cowboy, work for which life experiences had not prepared him.”

It was 1904 and only 19 years after the second Riel Rebellion. “Poundmaker, the great political and military leader of the native peoples was still in very recent memory. Gabriel Dumont, Louis Riel’s lieutenant and brilliant military leader of the Metis, was living quietly at his original homestead at Batoche.”

In spite of the sophistication of his life to this time, Richard Lindemere evidently possessed the pluckiness required to adapt to the more rugged western Canada setting. He did become a cowboy and worked as a drover, participating in 3 major cattle drives from 1905 to 1907.

It was a time,” Bill observes, “when the North West Mounted Police were a huge presence on the prairies, and were generally well regarded by the Aboriginal people.” Lindemere developed life long friendships with Mounties and they appeared in many of his paintings. Three great Chiefs, Poundmaker, Fine Day and Crowfoot captured his admiration and respect, as did Gabriel Dumont. According to Bill, “Grandfather systematically painted the Native and Metis leaders of the time, including Fine Day, who lived until the 1930’s and was Grand Chief of the Saskatchewan Cree.”

Painting by Richard Lindemere of Chief Fine Day -1926 (courtesy of Bill Day)
Painting by Richard Lindemere of Chief Fine Day -1926 (courtesy of Bill Day)

Lindemere established a homestead with his brother, “Uncle Bertie”. According to the family it failed, likely because he devoted his time to painting and his brother spent his time whittling.

At this point Bill’s narrative picks up the motorcycle trip. “The final 30 kilometers to Batoche was along the South Saskatchewan River, a step back in time. Family subsistence farms appeared, many with French names, obviously descendants of the original Metis settlers. They were laid out in strip fashion, characteristic of riverine settlements in Quebec.”

Obviously captivated by the political, social and military dynamics of those years, Bill now slips into a disquieting aspect of Canada’s relationship with indigenous people. “Despite superior generalship and brilliant tactics,” he says, “the Metis and Native forces were ultimately overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and fire power (Gatling guns and cannon) of the Canadian troops.”

After days of hard riding Bill and Michael arrived at their ultimate destination, the Saskatchewan Legislature. Here a number of Lindemere’s paintings are hung in the Prince Edward Room. The Security Officer told them the room was booked all day for a cabinet meeting. “We explained our desire to see Grandfather’s paintings and he looked at these 2 old guys in dusty leathers, then told us to wait. Shortly we were informed that the Premier had granted us10 minutes during their lunch break.”

Mesmerized by this segment of family history, they viewed Richard Lindemere’s 1928 painting of the Speaker of the House, commissioned by the Saskatchewan government. There were also 8 paintings of the North West Mounted Police. (Some of Lindemere’s paintings and sketches will be featured on my blogsite this month.)

Bill, age 77 at the time of the trip, says “Six whirlwind days, about 3000 kilometers, flawless machine performance, and we found Grandfather.” Richard Lindemere left a rich legacy for family and Canada!

Remembering Len Roberts

Len Roberts photo: Providence Funeral Homes
Len Roberts
photo: Providence Funeral Homes

My experience with Len began on June 1, 1974. That morning he picked me up from our home in rural Abbotsford to go to Hedley for training. During our 3 hours together in the car, he gave me an extensive verbal tour of the organization’s purpose, philosophy and methods. “We employ unique ministries to establish a common ground with the students. Our goal is to build relationships with them so we can share our life style, values and where appropriate, our faith.” The next morning I received my first hands on experience with Len’s “common ground” concept. Beth Hall, one of the wilderness skills instructors, asked me to join her and 3 girls to do rappelling.

I was behind the others as we walked across a field of brown grass to the rappel site. Observing these street wise girls in their tight jeans and blouses, I wondered if I’d ever be able to work effectively with kids like this. There seemed to be a wide gulf between me and them. They ignored me completely, as though unaware of my presence or existence. We made our way to the top of the high rock face down which we would rappel. I began to see the anxiety in their faces. They must also have seen it in mine. We feared the thought of descending on a rope down that sheer rock face. The rappel process required us to depend on each other for safety, and we began to talk. By the end of the morning we were no longer strangers.

Art Martens with Len Roberts (photo taken 2015)
Art Martens with Len Roberts (photo taken 2015)

Reflecting back on my years with the Foundation this past week, I began to understand more fully what Len had put in place, with Jean’s consistent help. It was Jean who kept the wheels on the rails and the trolley on the tracks.

Initially there were 2 programs, both in Surrey. Each worker was assigned a “squad” of 5 students. Len recognized the need to burn off a lot of excess energy and the program consisted of such activities as swimming, roller and ice hockey, hiking and camping. Camp Colonial in Hedley was purchased and became the wilderness hub. This made possible rappelling, rock climbing, canoeing, map and compass, horseback riding, skiing, and wilderness expeditions like canoeing the Bowron Lakes circuit and back packing in Cathedral Park. During those years Len traveled between Surrey and Hedley on an almost weekly basis. He was away from home and family frequently. It was a huge sacrifice for Len and Jean, and their children.

In time they moved the Foundation headquarters to Hedley. They sold their home in Surrey and the family also moved. The Foundation became like a complex puzzle in which each piece was required to support the whole. Some students lived in staff homes and saw how a husband and wife team interacted with each other and their children. Many students attended the organization’s school, taught by Ann Pinchin, who is here today. Len purchased the former store and reopened it, naming it The Mother Lode. Students were assigned there for work experience. Students were also assigned to the kitchen and dining room to learn culinary and public service skills. The emphasis was always on finding a common ground, developing relationships and winning the right to build positively into the lives of the students.

Our family and friends didn’t understand why anyone would want to live in a hot, remote community that had almost nothing to offer. Amazingly, a lot of young singles came, and stayed, and also young couples with children. That is what kept the Hedley school open as long as the organization was there. They came in large part because Len was able to speak compellingly about his vision for the work. He couldn’t pay high wages but he did offer a fascinating opportunity to make a difference in the lives of young people. And he offered an action packed program that was rare at that time, and still is. Young, inexperienced workers obtained work experience and developed skills they could later take elsewhere.

Len could be quite pragmatic. When Ruth Woodin, now the Hedley Post Master, applied for a job in the office, Len said, “I’m looking for someone who won’t get pregnant and quit, or who won’t get married and move away.” He had experienced both. Ruth didn’t do either, and she stayed to the end. She told me “when I was going through a very difficult valley in my life, Len & Jean stood by me all the way. Especially Jean. It was the best job I ever had.”

Len didn’t avoid the long hours and dedication he expected of us. When there was an AWOL, he was out late at night, patrolling the highway. Sometimes his quick mind made the difference. One day I was talking with several students on the top balcony of the Coach House. I noticed Eugene pacing agitatedly. He was an extremely intense, worried kid. I knew what he needed was attention. Before I could get to him, he slipped away and was running down the hill to the highway, obviously emotionally out of control. I went onto my radio handset to alert our workers. At the same time, Len was in his red toyota, coming down the hill from the Lodge toward town. He heard my call, pulled alongside Eugene and opened the door. “Quick get in before they get you!” he said. Relieved, Eugene got in and felt safe.

Did the Foundation make a difference? Ruth Woodin thinks it did. “A number of former students have come into the Post Office,” she told me. Again and again they said, “I was a kid in a program here. It turned my life around.”During the Foundation years, I knew Len as a boss and to some extent a friend. I understood his need to maintain some distance so people wouldn’t crowd him too much. Everyone wanted to ask him a question.

When a new government closed the Foundation doors in 1993, Linda and I kept in touch with Len and Jean. We saw that this was a difficult time for everyone. For Len and Jean it was especially difficult. They had invested many years of their lives in this work, now they needed to wrap it up.

We moved back to Hedley about 4 years ago and our home needed improvements. Len offered to help with a plumbing project. Then he and a friend replaced all windows and doors. They also drywalled almost the entire lower floor. They did it at a price no one else could touch. He had once run a complex organization. Now he was willing to work with a hammer, wrench and screwdriver without grumbling. We felt he wanted to help us.

After returning to Hedley, our friendship with Len & Jean deepened. Over the past few years they had numerous medical appointments in Penticton, and they at times stopped in at our place on their way home. Over coffee, Len would regale us with details about medical procedures and interactions with doctors, nurses and other patients. We could tell that at times his sense of humour had made the appointment entertaining for those who dealt with him.

For many Len Roberts was rare and special. For Linda and me he became a valued friend.

And of course, we continue to value Jean as a dear friend.

Gary Clarke, Del Riemer, Jim Martin, 3 of the many former staff that attended the Celebration of Life on Oct. 29, 2016
Gary Clarke, Del Riemer, Jim Martin, 3 of the many former staff that attended the Celebration of Life on Oct. 29, 2016

Dan Twizell And His 1929 Dodge

Dan Twizell
Dan Twizell

At the recent Harvest Dinner in Hedley I introduced myself to a man with a luxurious, white beard. He said, “My name is Dan Twizell. I’m the owner of that 1929 Dodge parked across the street.”

A week later Dan came to our home for coffee, driving the Dodge. In response to my question he said “I chased the car 10 years. The owner didn’t want to part with it but I called him every 6 months. Finally he agreed to sell. It came with only the body, windows and wheels. No motor, running gear or interior.”

I had never done painting, upholstery or body work. My friend Leroy Fague and I spent 13,000 hours over 5 years. I drive the Dodge everywhere. I don’t want it to be a garage queen.”

Dan Twizell & his 1929 Dodge
Dan Twizell & his 1929 Dodge

Dan was born near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan where his parents were homesteading a small acreage. Family income was meager and at an early age Dan began learning the importance of making sound decisions and being independent. “There was always a 30-30 Winchester at the back door,” he recalled. When he was 5 his father instructed, “don’t fool around with it. If you’re going to hunt, be sure you don’t need to use more than one shell.”

One day his father said, “we’re going to starve to death here. I’ll have to go west to look for work.” Two months later he sent train tickets for the family to join him in New Westminster, BC.

For me it wasn’t good timing,” Dan remembers. “I was just completing grade one. The school made me repeat the grade. They considered us farm kids who didn’t know much.”

For a kid who supposedly didn’t know much, he had a lively and practical mind. “On my 8th birthday I was given a wristwatch.” he said. “I went upstairs to my bedroom and took it apart.” Like many boys, myself included, he wanted to know what was inside. However, unlike most boys, he put it back together and it worked!

At the senior secondary level he opted for the trade school, an indication of his preference for a career that didn’t require sitting behind a desk in an office. “I heard they placed students in practical work assignments, like a tire shop and a dairy farm. I wanted the experience.”

When his parents bought the popular take-out Snack Shack near Aldergrove, he got plenty of cooking experience. “My parents worked there all day,” he said, “so when I came home, I needed to prepare supper for the family. My dad told me to make meals from scratch. Even now I do most of the cooking. I’m a throw it together cook.”

Upon completing high school he demonstrated he was a “roll up your sleeves and go to work” type of guy. He went to a garage to apply for a job. Seeing that the owner was busy, he removed his jacket and began pumping gas. Two hours later the owner said “o.k. you’re on the payroll as of a couple of hours ago.”

As a young man he drifted into beer drinking associations. “In time, I saw that the crowd I was with was becoming dependent on the pub. I wanted to get away from the pub so without telling anyone, I moved to another town.”

In his mid 20’s, he applied for a job as a heavy duty mechanic. “I was the happiest guy in the world when they made me a field mechanic. Often I’d come to work and there was a note telling me a float plane was waiting to take me to a job. I’d ask the pilot where we were going. I stayed with the company 30 years until I retired at age 56.”

Asked about his greatest success, he replied, “my wife Judy. We attended the same school but I didn’t meet her until we were both at a mutual friend’s Christmas Eve party.” They’ve been together 36 years, enjoying lots of camping, hunting and fishing.

In 2004 they moved to their present property, which they named Crazy Goat Acres, on Old Hedley Road. It was here he rebuilt the Dodge. Regrettably, the goats needed to be sold recently. Judy has MS now and walks with a cane. Even so, with chickens, ducks, 3 dogs, a horse, a donkey, and the Dodge, they’re pretty content.

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.”

Len Roberts’ Vision Changed Lives

 

Len Roberts at Camp Colonial Lodge
Len Roberts at Camp Colonial Lodge

When I received the message early last week that my friend Len Roberts had made his final exit from the stage of life, it was as though my personal world shifted on its axis. He was one of those rare, larger than life individuals whose words and actions shape the lives of people around them.

I first met Len when I applied for a job with the One Way Adventure Foundation, then headquartered in Surrey. He wanted me to receive training in the organization’s wilderness skills program in Hedley. On June 30, 1974, he picked me up at my home in rural Abbotsford. During the 3 hour drive he introduced me to the history, philosophy, and methods of the Foundation.

Jean and I had a booth at the Cloverdale Fair, promoting Bowron Lakes Canoe Expeditions,” he began. “A probation officer asked if we’d take a group of their young clients. We agreed and for 9 days we had a bunch of devious, rowdy teens in the wilderness, away from the city and their friends. When we returned with the kids still alive, the probation officer invited us to develop a program for their toughest cases. Soon 20 or more untamed youths were arriving at our home every morning and we began noticing our neighbours anxiously peering through slits in closed curtains. This convinced us we needed to get the kids away from our neighbourhood.”

The Roberts established the One Way Adventure Foundation and bought 3 acres with a house and small barn. That was the beginning of an effective and fairly unique approach to working with teens who were no longer welcome in their own community, school or home.

In time they realized they required a more remote setting, so they purchased Camp Colonial on the outskirts of Hedley. They added vehicles, canoes, back packing equipment and more. This enabled workers to take students away from familiar street haunts and associations. It permitted students to participate in adventures that developed an awareness of their potential. It also fostered relationships between students and workers.

That first summer, under the leadership of a wilderness skills instructor, my 5 boys and I canoed the Bowron Lakes circuit. We were bitten by horse flies and hordes of mosquitoes, felt the pain of canoe yokes digging into our shoulders while portaging between lakes, paddled all day in rain, and took turns doing bear watch at night. In the evenings around a campfire, I read to them from Jack London’s wonderful book,”Call of the Wild”. On the 9th day when we landed on the last shore, the students spontaneously formed a victory circle. As predicted by Len’s teaching, it had been a relationship and character building adventure.

Throughout those years Len and Jean were a potent team. Len had the vision and unassuming charisma that attracted workers. He looked for individuals willing to descend into the trenches and do what was needed. During my time, 2 former students who had completed their program returned and entered our one year training for new staff. Both became valued leaders in the organization. Sometimes less educated staff demonstrated a wonderful sensitivity that allowed them to develop strong bonds with the students. Again and again, Len reminded us that relationships were key.

While Len was bringing in new workers, buying vans and small green 4×4 toyotas (toads), and acquiring buildings needed for programs, Jean tightened the organizational nuts and bolts. She kept the wheels on the rails.

That the system changed lives is attested to by Hedley’s Post Master, Ruth Woodin. She told me that since the doors of the Foundation were closed in the early 1990’s, a number of former students have come into the P.O. and said, “I was a kid here years ago. It changed my life.” Not all have achieved success, of course, but we know of many who now have families and are holding jobs.

In a quiet way, always trusting God for guidance, Len stirred our imagination and spirit, imbuing us with a sense of mission. His compelling presence and unwavering commitment drew us to the work. We wanted to be part of his vision. We wanted to give young people a more optimistic understanding of who they were created to be.

For many Len Roberts was rare and special. For me he became a valued friend.

Art Martens with his friend, Len Roberts
Art Martens with his friend, Len Roberts