Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tony La Russa's humble Vancouver beginnings

Tony La Russa, an intense 23-year-old infielder, joined the Vancouver Mounties in May, 1968. The team finished in last place, but the roster included five future major-league managers. Photograph courtesy the David Eskenazi Collection.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 27, 2011

Tony La Russa changes pitchers as often as Lady Gaga changes wardrobes.

The manager of the St. Louis Cardinals is a mad genius of the diamond. His stratagems have earned him two World Series titles. Only the legendary Connie Mark and John McGraw have enjoyed more victories as managers.

Yet, in Game Five of the World Series, the Cardinals brain trust suffered from brain cramps.

A fresh pitcher arrived with orders to issue an intentional walk. After making four easy lobs, he was dismissed for the night.

A failed hit-and-run play resulted in the slow-footed Allen Craig churning along the base path like a doomed dispatch runner in the mud on the Western Front.

After the game, a 4-1 win for the Texas Rangers, who can claim their first World Series with a victory in St. Louis on Thursday night, La Russa blamed crowd noise and confusion on the telephone to the bullpen for the fiasco.

At one point, he greeted a reliever on the pitching mound with the words, “What are you doing here?”

La Russa’s pitching coach, Dave Duncan, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “How this happened, I have no idea. But I blame myself.”

Back in British Columbia, the drama was watched on television with keen interest by two former ball players.

Gerry Reimer, 73, of Enderby and Wayne Norton, 68, of Port Moody, played together on the Vancouver Mounties in 1968. Reimer covered first base, while Norton patrolled behind him in right field. The team’s starting catcher was Duncan, while the second baseman was La Russa, an intense 23-year-old with more ambition than skill.

The infielder arrived in Vancouver after being demoted by the parent Oakland A’s. At the time, the sportswriter Greg Douglas wrote that the prospect “knows only one way to approach a game and that is to hustle until you simply run out of breath.”

All hoped to catch on with a big-league club. Duncan and La Russa made it. Reimer and Norton did not.

Norton has kept his hand in the game, too, as a Seattle Mariners scout responsible for Canada and Europe. Looking back, he can see why La Russa had only modest success as a major leaguer, spreading 132 games over six seasons on three clubs.

“He had limited tools as a player,” he said. “There are five tools you look for” — fielding, arm strength, running speed, hitting for power, and hitting for average — “and he was not outstanding in any of them.”

Norton spent several seasons with La Russa in the Athletics system.

“I roomed with him on the road,” he said. “In Des Moines (Iowa), Vancouver, and Birmingham (Ala.). He was serious and dedicated.”

The 1968 Mounties included three Canadians on the roster, a rarity at the time, as Norton and Reimer were joined by right-handed pitcher Vern Handrahan, a mailman from Prince Edward Island known for chewing toothpicks, a nervous habit he maintained even while on the mound pitching.

Reimer remembers the Mounties being a close-knit squad. He had the team over for a barbecue at his house on Windsor Street, a long fly ball from the park. The company and the home-cooked meal were welcomed by out-of-towners like Duncan and La Russa.

Reimer also remembers a friendly atmosphere at Capilano (now Nat Bailey) Stadium, where he recalls his four-year-old son being bounced on the knee of one of the Phillipone brothers, owners of the notorious Penthouse Cabaret, a strip club frequently raided by police.

It was a woeful season for the Mounties, whose 58-88 record was the worst in the Pacific Coast League, a Triple-A circuit. According to a report in the Sporting News, Vancouver went a stretch of 33 games during which the team hit only two home runs. La Russa, not a power hitter, smacked them both. Many games were attended by fewer than 1,000 fans.

Mickey Vernon, the Mounties’ kindly manager, allowed the players to participate in stunts in the hope of attracting more people to the park. The Panamanian Ossie Chavarria, who liked Vancouver so much that he settled in the neighbouring suburb of Burnaby, played all nine positions in one game. In another, the clubhouse attendant, a 19-year-old university undergraduate, convinced the manager to allow him to be the starting pitcher for the final game of the season.

The kid did all right, allowing just one run over three innings. He even struck out a batter.

The game lasted just 64 minutes, as both teams were eager to get on with civilian life.

The rookie’s career lasted but the one game. (He signed a contract for the day in which he was paid $25. He was promptly fined $25 for wearing his spikes in the team’s business office.) He later became a teacher and a union president. Ernest (Kit) Krieger, who is now the registrar of the B.C. College of Teachers, caught up with La Russa while attending a baseball game in Miami earlier this year.

He reminded the Cardinals skipper about the final game of the 1968 season, the one that ended so quickly.

The manager sized up the paunchy, grey-haired, bespectacled 62-year-old in front of him.

You pitched that game?!” he said.

Oddly, the woeful ’68 Mounties produced five major-league managers — La Russa, Steve Boros, Joe Nossek, and the brothers Rene and Marcel Lachemann.

While Norton is cheering for La Russa, Reimer is not. The son who bounced on the cabaret owner’s knee went on to crack a major-league roster. Kevin Reimer, a slugger like his father, broke in with the Texas Rangers.

The linescore foe the final game of the Vancouver Mounties' woeful 1968 season. Teenaged pitcher Kit Krieger made his debut as a professional by pitching the first three innings. It was also his final game. Note how the Sporting News misspelled his name.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Quirky moniker Helps political novice in name recognition challenge

Victoria city council candidate Lisa Helps helps harvest vegetables from Haultain Common, a strip of city-owned land. Chad Hipolito photographs for the Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 24, 2011


The candidate gets quizzical looks on the doorstep when she introduces herself.

That can happen when your family name is also an intransitive verb.

“My name really is Lisa Helps,” she assures voters.

The felicitously-named candidate is making her debut on the hustings this fall. She is among 20 candidates vying for eight seats on Victoria city council. Among the contenders are all eight incumbents.

For the challengers, it’s like playing a game of musical chairs in which every chair is occupied.

The incumbents began the campaign favoured to return to their seats after the Nov. 19 civic election. Name recognition can be a trump card. Voter interest is low. Three years ago, only 27 per cent of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot.

For Ms. Helps, the challenge is not only to become known, but to encourage more voters to go to the polls.
Lisa Helps

“It requires a lot of interesting campaigning,” she said. “I need to reach everybody.”
Like most candidates, she is relying on social media to spread her message. A Twitter and Facebook presence allows her to canvass potential supporters for their views on the issues. It also helps her build a platform during the campaign.

“It’s not just, ‘I’m Lisa, vote for me.’ It’s ‘Hey, I’m Lisa, what are your hopes, dreams, ideas, thoughts for the city?’ ”

The modern approach is being backed by an old-fashioned letter-writing strategy her campaign calls the Judd Buchanan Project. Mr. Buchanan, 82, told Ms. Helps that he had launched his political career by winning election to the school board in London, Ont., by writing personal letters to potential supporters. The insurance agent went on to to win five consecutive elections to the House of Commons, where he served as a Cabinet minister under Pierre Trudeau before moving to Victoria.

To campaign in a civic election is to practice politics at the neighbourhood level with door-knocking, mainstreeting and kaffeeklatsches. Ms. Helps spends two nights a week at gatherings in private homes where she is introduced to neighbours over tea, chocolates, or wine and cheese. “They feel like job interviews,” she said, laughing. Which, of course, they are.

The 12 non-incumbent candidates include homeless advocate Rose Henry and property owner Robin Kimpton, who has been in disputes with the city over the disrepair of his rental properties. Ben Isitt, an historian and author, who twice ran unsuccessfully for mayor, is also seeking a council seat. Three candidates — Aaron Hall, Linda McGrew and Sukhi Lalli — are running as a slate endorsed by Open Victoria, a group calling for greater transparency at city hall.

Ms. Helps, 35, is executive director of Community Micro Lending, which provides modest loans to budding entrepreneurs seeking to start a small business. The group also pairs the loan recipients with mentors from the business community.

Earlier, she chaired the Fernwood Neighbourhood Resource Group when it bought a dilapidated century-old building on the area’s main intersection. The building was renovated with apartments for low-income residents upstairs and a popular coffee shop on street level. (Victoria is a small town. The building was purchased from Mr. Kimpton, against whom she now competes for a council seat.)

One feature of the Helps campaign is the holding of a weekly work party.

“We’re repairing fences, helping with gardens and building bookshelves,” she said.

“That draws attention to ‘Hey, Lisa actually gets stuff done,’ which is one of my key messages.”

On Saturday, she was joined by incumbent Philippe Lucas and candidate Shellie Gudgeon, a restaurateur, in harvesting and weeding Haultain Common, a vegetable garden planted with tomatoes, potatoes, and squash along a narrow boulevard of city-owned land.

Lest campaigning be all work and no fun, she is inviting all 20 council and four mayoral candidates to a hootenanny at Logan’s Pub.

“It’s going to be interesting to see who shows up and what they sing,” she said.

“It’ll lighten things up and draw people together.”

She plans to sing with her campaign team She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain. They’ve changed the lyrics to fit into the campaign: “She’ll be making an infrastructure priority plan when she comes ...”

Good thing she’s not running for Canadian Idol.

The campaign introduced the candidate to the electorate with a charming day-in-the-life video.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Author prefers type over stereotype

The Vancouver author Kevin Chong has just released his second novel, Beauty Plus Pity. Jeff Vinnick photograph for the Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 20, 2011

The Vancouver of Kevin Chong’s boyhood was not one of hikes through dense woods, nor jet-skiing on English Bay, nor schussing down Grouse Mountain.

The natural wonders of the City of Glass on the edge of the rainforest were backdrop to a boy who preferred indoor entertainments. He watched a lot of television. “I like a lot of comedies like Night Court and The Cosby Show,” he said. “The A-Team. Little House on the Prairies. WKRP, a great show,” he said.

When his immigrant parents spent an evening with friends huddled over mahjong tiles, he spent the night with the friends’ children playing computer games.

As he grew older, books, movies and music informed the world view of an aspiring writer who considered himself to be modern, media savvy, and pop-culture satiated.

A decade ago, on the release of his debut novel, Baroque-a-Nova, Mr. Chong let it be known he was “loathe to write any books that might have a cover with bamboo lettering on it.” He did not want to be limited in his subject matter by his ethnicity. So, no restaurants, no railroads, no laundries. No “joy,” no “luck,” no “jade.” Not his immigrant experience.

Though both grandfathers had paid the hated head tax, Mr. Chong was born in Hong Kong. He arrived in this land at age five with a bowl haircut and a hunger for what he would recognize as an adult as a desire for cultural fluency.

None of the major characters in the first novel are of Chinese ancestry. His second novel, Beauty Plus Pity, released recently by Arsenal Pulp Press of Vancouver, is about a young man struggling with a romantic breakup and the death of his father. Malcolm Kwan is the son of immigrants from Hong Kong who aspires to be a male model. (“This is where the autobiography stops,” Mr. Chong quips.)

“It deals with how I experienced being a child of immigrants,” he said. “I wasn’t fixated on having to straddle two cultures. It was more indirect. I’m an outsider. It made me more indoorsy and culture obsessed.”

In trying to learn more about his late father, the character uncovers an affair that produced a love child, a half-sister with whom he develops a friendship.

The city in which he was raised provides the setting for both his novels.

“I write about Vancouver out of a lack of imagination,” he said. “It’s the world around me. I toyed with the idea of writing about different places and different times. Maybe I’m too self-absorbed to write outside of the world that I know, and of the obsessions that take up my daily life.”

What are those obsessions?

“Media. The hyphenated culture. Being raised in a place like Vancouver, which is so strongly Asian but also has this British underlayer.”

His Vancouver includes a Legion on Main Street at which he and other writers gather for Thursday beers, as well as such hybrid joints as a Japanese restaurant serving Chinese-style poutine. The city becomes ever more cosmopolitan even as it becomes more expensive and less friendly.

He went to elementary school in Ladner, then attended the Catholic middle school Vancouver College, where he developed a “brutish, fart-centered sense of humour,” before entering Eric Hamber Secondary. “Hamber was an alienating experience,” he said. “The school has two major populations — Asian kids who liked hip-hop and Jewish kids. I was the Asian kid who liked Neil Young. That was a lonely year.” He completed high school at the Prince of Wales Mini School with fellow “brainy misfits.”

His musical passion led him to take a road trip with three boys detailed in the comic memoir Neil Young Nation.

Another nonfiction book will be released next spring when GreyStone issues My Year of the Racehorse, Mr. Chong’s tour of tracks from Kentucky to Hong Kong. For a time, he owned a share in Mocha Time. “She was an honest runner,” he said. “Not very talented, but always gave it her best.” She twice won races at Hastings Racecourse before being claimed at a race two years ago. He still misses her.

He is sad to see the sport of kings in such decline.

“Once, it was the only game in town,” he said. “Now people want to lose their money more quickly.”

A part-time writing teacher, Mr. Chong, 36, likes to show his classes a clip from the movie Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. He asks his students the difference between Kumar and the stoners of Dude, Where’s My Car? All kinds of convoluted suggestions are offered: “Harold is more studious than Seann William Scott,” or, “Kumar is more tied to familial obligations.”

The Harold & Kumar story works on two levels, he tells the class. It’s about two guys who want to go to White Castle. It’s also about two men of Asian ancestry seeking mainstream acceptance.

“They (the students) take pains to avoid the obvious,” he said.

Mr. Chong knows that to be described as a Chinese-Canadian writer is to arouse certain expectations. A writer who happens to be of Chinese ancestry is less likely to have bamboo lettering on his dust jacket.

Kevin Chong will be appearing on a panel called “Bamboo Lettering” with Ling Zhang and Jen Sookfong Lee on Saturday at the Vancouver International Writers Festival. He will be reading in Seattle on Oct. 24, in Ottawa on Oct. 25, in Toronto on Nov. 3, and in Montreal on Nov. 5.

Vancouver writer Kevin Chong has a second novel out this fall, which is to be followed by a second non-fiction book in the new year about his experiences betting on horses.

Monday, October 17, 2011

After violence in the Philippines, a refugee thrives in her new home

Chandu Claver poses in his Victoria backyard with daughters (from left) Alex, 12; Samantha, 17; and, Sandy, 15. Chad Hipolito photograph for the Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
october 17, 2011


The morning routine on a school day at the Claver home operates like clockwork.

The father, Constancio, known as Chandu, rises before dawn, cleans up, puts rice on the stove.

At 5:55, he begins trying to wake the youngest of his three daughters. Alex, 12, gets to use the lone bathroom until 6:30, when it is turned over to 15-year-old Sandy.

Everyone comes to the table at 7 a.m., when the father serves a traditional Filipino breakfast of eggs and garlic fried rice with a bit of meat, or fish.

Then, the eldest daughter, Samantha, 17, gets the use of the bathroom before heading off to catch the 7:55 bus to Victoria High School.

After the girls are off to classes, Mr. Claver walks for a half-hour to his 10-hour shift as a client service worker at an emergency homeless shelter.

He arrived in Canada four years ago with what remained of his family. As a refugee, he expected hardships.

“I knew that before I came,” he said.

He knows his girls miss cousins and friends back in the homeland they left so unexpectedly.

Last week, the family’s routine was interrupted. Samantha, a Grade 12 student, traveled to Vancouver where she received an award of excellence from Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s representative for children and youth.

The teenager has been active in two stage productions — “Where is Home” and “My Forbidden Disorder” — in which youth share their immigrant experiences. As well, she has helped develop programming for Project Respect, a program to help youth avoid being victims of sexual violence.

The press release announcing her award describes her coming to Canada “as a result of fear and violence in her home country.”

That does not begin to tell the tale.

On July 31, 2006, while Samantha was attending a Girl Scout gathering in South Korea, her parents went about an ordinary morning routine in their home of Tabuk, a rice-growing centre and capital of Kalinga province in the northern Philippines. Her father, a medical doctor, supervised several health clinics for which his wife, Alyce, kept the books. The couple had met while promoting social justice for local indigenous people, whose poverty the doctor believed was responsible for many of their recurring illnesses.

The couple had just dropped off Alex at her school and were on their way to Sandy’s school when they were attacked at a busy intersection.

“We were cut off by a van,” Mr. Claver recalled. “Two riflemen came out and started shooting at the car. One on my left, one on my right. It happened so fast.”

A shot tore into his left shoulder. He ducked to his right, seeking cover beneath the dashboard. His wife, Alyce, sitting in the passenger seat, also ducked, covering his body with hers.

In the backseat, Sandy cowered as low as she could go.

The shots kept coming.

“We were thinking they would come and finish us off,” he said.

Instead, the gunmen fled in their van.

Later, 38 cartridge cases would be found on the roadway.

The doctor bled profusely from the shoulder wound. His wife was struck by seven bullets, grievously wounded, though still able to talk. Sandy suffered a grazing head wound.

The parents were rushed to surgery. He remembers hearing his wife calling relatives on a cell phone, urging them to take care of the daughters.

“I made it,” he said. “She didn’t.”

The shooting was a high-profile case in the Philippines, where government agents with ties to the military were suspected of the attack. More than 900 Filipinos have been the victims of extra-judicial killings in the past decade.

The doctor stayed in safe houses after the attack, but received a warning that his daughters were in danger.

Mr. Claver quickly arranged what everyone was told was to be an extended holiday. He did not tell the girls that he planned on seeking refugee status after arriving in Canada. Once here, the daughters discovered in his luggage a Filipino cookbook. The secret was out. This was to be more than a visit.

The family received refugee status, becoming permanent residents.

Mr. Claver, unable to practice medicine here, took a janitorial job with the Cool Aid Society. He found a two-bedroom home to rent, taught himself to cook, attentively monitored his daughters’ progress at school.

News of Samantha’s latest honour was warmly received.

“It brings great satisfaction,” Mr. Claver said. “It shows they’re fitting in. For myself, it was a big worry, having to transplant them suddenly to Canada. They were never prepared for this.

“It’s a good sign.”

As for Samantha, she plans on becoming a doctor. Like her father.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The story of B.C.'s Slocan Valley, told in forgotten images

Doukhobor men pose at he communal brick factory on the banks of the Slocan River in 1914. The image appears in Rita Moir's fascinating new book, The Third Crop, published by Sono Nis Press. Photograph courtesy of the Doukhobor Discovery Centre.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 12, 2011


The photographs were shoved inside shoeboxes, hidden away in archives, glued to family albums held together by string.

When Rita Moir searched for unpublished images to tell the story of British Columbia’s Slocan Valley, she set off scavenger hunts in private homes and public institutions.

The search uncovered many treasures, gathered in The Third Crop (Sono Nis Press), an elegantly-designed book rich in detail about a valley unlike any other in the province.

Here are unsmiling Doukhobor men at a riverbank brickyard, some looking as though they’ve just arrived from the Russian steppes.

Here are the proud women who have made 1,720 pounds of jam, a donation from their peaceful valley to war-ravaged Britain.

Here are Japanese-Canadians building their own uninsulated housing at an internment camp at Lemon Creek.

Here is a Mrs. Woyna holding kielbasas at the general store in Appledale, where a box of Crisco shortening costs 30 cents, while a tin of oily pilchards went for 16 cents.

Here is John Avis, that kidder, performing a precarious handstand atop the gabled roof of the new schoolhouse.

Here is the Clever Block at 115 6th Ave. in New Denver, an address shared for a time by a mortuary and a meat market.

Here are miners blasting rocks, children dancing around a maypole, hunters with cougar pelts worth a bounty of $20 each.

Here are three First Nations paddlers in a pine-bark canoe shaped like the giant sturgeons that haunt the local lake.

The Slocan Valley is the ancestral home of the Sinixt and Ktunaxa peoples and later a settling place for waves of immigrants, including those fleeing Czarist repression, or the limited future of working in a British mine.

The valley has long attracted exiles, whether by choice (the pacifist Doukhobors), or by force (interned Japanese-Canadians civilians). Later still, some came to escape an unpopular war in Asia, as well as the alienation of modern urban life.

Ms. Moir has lived in the valley for 36 years, making her “a relative new comer” in her words.

“I want to show how all the cultures here in their time have contributed to the ancestry of place, of who we are now,” she said.

“It may have been the Scandinavian men blasting the roads up through the bluffs from Slocan to Silverton and New Denver. It may have been the Japanese-Canadian people building their own internment camps. It may have been the women teaching in the schools and working in the orchards. It may have been the Doukhobor people contributing their agricultural knowledge. All of this contributed to who we are today.”
Slocan women with jam for wartime Britain.
The book takes its title from a third cutting of hay, a rare crop whose bounty allows livestock to thrive through long, hard winters. To dry the harvest, farmers placed limbed trees in portholes, hanging the green hay like tinsel on a Christmas tree. For the author, the third crop is a metaphor for “what happens when a group of people work hard enough and long enough, go that extra mile, and celebrate together, too.”

This is the fourth non-fiction book from Ms. Moir, who won the VanCity Book Prize and the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize in 2000 for Buffalo Jump: A Woman’s Travels.

She arrived in the valley at age 23 in 1975, taking a job as the live-in caretaker for the local community centre. First, though, she had to build a log cabin next door that would be her home.

Soon after, she got hired as a reporter at the Nelson Daily News. New owners from Eastern Canada were soon ordering editorials be published with which the local reporting staff took exception for factual inaccuracies. In time, Ms. Moir and another reporter, Jim Sinclair, now the president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, were forced from their jobs. Their antagonists were newspaper baron Conrad Black and right-hand man David Radler, both of whom wound up doing prison time, a downfall for which she has little sympathy.

Some years ago, Ms. Moir salvaged bricks from a torn-down chimney. She even carted some with her when she moved to another home in Vallican, using them to construct an outdoor fireplace. As it turns out, the century-old bricks are from the riverside Doukhobor brick factory featured in the photograph in the new book.

Four young women take a break while working on a family farm in 1946. An internment camp for Japanese-Canadians was established at Lemon Creek in the Slocan Valley. After the war, the residents were forbidden from returning to the coast.

Homage for the tree that says Vancouver Island

A conservation worker checks out a Garry oak meadow overlooking the lighthouse at historic Fort Rodd Hill, outside Victoria. Chad Hipolito photograph for the Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 10, 2011


O gnarly Garry oak, how majestic you stand.

In summer, you offer leafy shade beneath an umbrella canopy, your branches reaching out to offer protection from harsh sunshine.

Alas, the summer warmth is but a memory. The sun hangs lower in the sky. The oaks now prepare to go dormant. Every zephyr causes a cascade of debris. The oaks shed every leaf in a downpour that includes acorns and coarse woody debris. Some fallen branches are as thick as a man’s thigh.

It is advisable to wear a hardhat while raking the yard.

The detritus accumulates in a pile at curbside, a brown pyramid of dead leaves as crunchy as potato chips.

Halloween approaches and bared Garry oaks now look spooky with knobby limbs reaching out as though to grab the slowest of the trick-or-treaters.

Lone Garry oaks dot the local landscape — three are rooted in my yard — but one of the richest ecosystems in the land is also one of the most endangered. Other than two small stands in the Fraser Valley, the tree is found only on the southern Gulf Islands and on Vancouver Island.

Once common in these parts, Garry oak meadows now cover less than five per cent of their former territory.

Happily, a group of botanists, zoologists and vegetation ecologists are coming to the rescue. The Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team, formed 12 years ago, has just released an online guide for preserving and restoring Garry oak meadows.

Conan Webb
One of the lead authors is Conan Webb, who chairs the team’s restoration and management recovery implementation group. By day, he works for Parks Canada as a species-at-risk recovery planner. (Those who are trying to preserve the Garry oak have titles as gothic as the trees.) Mr. Webb, 33, said the tree’s ecosystem is one of the most diverse to be found on the planet.

“It’s so different from the rest of the West Coast rainforest,” he noted.

Some 1,600 species of native plants and animals can be found in the Garry oak ecosystem. About 100 are threatened with extinction.

The meadows are under assault by encroaching land development, as well as by invasive species such as Scotch broom and English ivy. European starlings and eastern grey squirrels displace native birds and eat their eggs. Garry oaks were infested by winter moths in the 1980s, an invasion repulsed over time by the voracious appetites of predatory ground beetles. The moths were followed by the jumping gall wasp and the pesky, sap-sucking phylloxera.

Before the arrival of Europeans, oak meadows blanketed the islands, thriving in the protected rain shadow found behind the Olympic Mountains and the Vancouver Island Ranges. It is a pocket of Mediterranean-like weather.

The meadows are known for their brilliant wildflower displays in spring. The First Nations cultivated camas, whose bulbs are rich in carbohydrates. Early European settlers mistook distant fields of the brilliantly blue flower for lakes, a floral mirage. James Douglas, the first colonial governor, pronounced the land surrounding Victoria’s natural harbour to be “a perfect Eden.”

Much of what is now the city of Victoria was covered by Garry oak meadow. Today, one has to go to Beacon Hill Park, or the grounds of Government House to see a meadow in a natural state.

Elsewhere in the city, small patches of meadow are maintained, with volunteers supervising the well-being of the sites. Near my own house, two small city-owned plots of land, smaller than a residential lot, are home to Quercus garryana, a species named for Nicholas Garry, deputy-governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Fort Garry in Winnipeg is named after him, too, which is how far east you have to go in Western Canada to find another native species of oak.

Mr. Webb, who graduated from the University of Victoria with a biology degree, grew up in Port Hardy, outside the range of the ecosystem that now dominates his working life. As a boy, he played in the surrounding rainforest, building forts and playing hide and seek.

In Victoria, he reminds himself to make an effort to introduce his young son to natural wonders.

“In the city,” he said, “it’s so easy to get disconnected from nature.”

We live amid natural wonders, from the arbutus, whose bark peels like the aftermath of a bad sunburn, to the towering Douglas fir. No tree says Vancouver Island, or the Gulf Islands, quite like the Garry oak, for which we can all give thanks, even as we spend the holiday rake in hand.

Memorial trees
In 1917, as war raged overseas, 14 silver maple saplings were planted on the grounds of Victoria High School to commemorate the fallen. The school lost three teachers and 83 students in the Great War, later to be known as the First World War.

Those 94-year-old trees stood as silent sentinels along the Vining Street entrance until earlier this year when, to the dismay of many, they were cut down because of rot.

On Nov 10, the day before Remembrance Day, a row of 10 red maples will be planted in a ceremony at which the 5th Field Regiment Band will perform, as it did back in 1917.

Victoria needs more Portland

Corey Judd of Cabin 12 restaurant in downtown Victoria checks out a delivery of a gross of eggs.

By Tom Hawthorn
Boulevard Magazine
October, 2011

Pilgrims return with word of paradise on earth, a place where junk shops hold treasures; where brew pubs outnumber churches; where food carts offer a United Nations smorgasbord of delectable delights; where restaurants serve only the freshest of locally-grown foods; where java joints dot every corner with steaming cups of fair-trade organic coffee; where record stores actually sell vinyl, and where a roster of used-book stores includes a sprawling emporium covering an entire downtown block.

I speak, of course, of the fragrant City of Roses. Portland! O shining exemplar of all things urban and trendy and good, you are my hipster heaven.

My own foray to the Wonder on the Willamette included a stay at the Ace Hotel, where rooms come equipped with record players and a photo booth can be found in the lobby. (In its previous incarnation as the Clyde Hotel, a dive, the hotel served as the setting for the harrowing movie Drugstore Cowboy.) The groaning shelves of Powell’s City of Books lured me one block north for several hours of scanning dust-jacket spines. Elsewhere in the city, the local McMenamins chain of brew pubs offers inexpensive fare and good beers in odd venues, such as a converted funeral parlor. Over in the Hawthorne district, a cornucopia of mom-and-pop shops offers trendy, funky and bohemian choices.

So hip that it aches, the scene has been parodied as Portlandia, a sketch comedy show. (Check out the clips on YouTube. Hilarious.) On the show, Portland “is the city where young people go to retire.”

We’ve got our own Portland North going on in Victoria. We need more of it.

Young entrepreneurs have turned commercial spaces into communal gathering places. For instance, the interior of the restaurant called Cabin 12 seems as homey as grandma’s living room, filled as it is with pocket books, long-playing records and board games. The restaurateur Corey Judd raised funds through appeals on social media. He was so broke he lived for a time in a room at the back. Judd hired employees of similarly struggling backgrounds, seeing in them an echo of his own resourceful self. The presence of Cabin 12 improved the neighbourhood, but the building in which they are located has been sold and will be redeveloped. Cabin 12 has to find a new home.

Other restaurants that contribute to the city’s vibe first had to deal with a slow-moving municipal bureaucracy. Located in a repurposed shipping crate on the Inner Harbour, the terrific Red Fish, Blue Fish offers sustainable seafood fare. The lines now stretch the full length of the wharf. It took ages for the owners to get permission for what has been a worthwhile contribution to the waterfront.

A decade ago, intrepid travelers Jodi Mann and Nick Crooks decided to bring the street foods of Southeast Asia to hungry pedestrians in Victoria. They stir-fried noodles from a converted hotdog cart in a Chinatown parking lot. But the city’s red tape and an unhelpful health department led the couple to abandon the outdoors. Today, the Noodle Box has five indoor outlets in the city, as well as two more in Vancouver.

Instead of throwing up roadblocks, the city should be encouraging the use of food carts, an inexpensive way for budding entrepreneurs to get started. Carts bring foot traffic and activity to the street.

A city’s vibe depends on the residents, not just commercial ventures. In my Gonzales neighbourhood, an annual block party on Maddison Street brings a temporary halt to busy lives as locals meet and share favourite foods. Children find new play pals, while older neighbours living on their own become a little less isolated.

A smaller backyard party is held every summer on the nearby 1000-block Clare Street. The Clare folks have placed arty, hand-painted signs at either end of the block, warning drivers of the presence of children and pets. One of them even built a box in front of her house from which passersby can borrow, or donate, books.

Over in Fernwood, one woman’s initiative has led to the painting of hundreds of telephone poles (many defaced by ugly tags and graffiti) with bright designs. The neighbourhood is also a place of mom-and-pop operations, such as the Fernwood Coffee Company, an artisan roaster. The Fernwood people have the right idea in creating a hip, funky, engaged neighbourhood, an eccentric outpost in a world of global brand names. The place is so groovy I think of it as Little Portland.

Portland's hipster ache drives Portlandia, a wickedly funny portrayal of the worst of the best: "In Portland, you can put a bird on something and call it art."

Friday, October 7, 2011

Officers got their man long before the Mounties arrived

A member of the B.C. Provincial Police takes aim with a tommy gun. The force, older than the RCMP, policed the colony and then the province from 1858 until 1950. BC Archives B-06995.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 6, 2011


Eric Hallam is one of the last surviving members of the force that policed this province for nearly a century.

The remaining veterans of the British Columbia Provincial Police muster on the second Tuesday of every month for lunch at a Greek restaurant in Langley.

“The widows come now, too, because there are so few of us,” Mr. Hallam said. “Many aren’t that mobile anymore.”

Once, the police force patrolled mountain highways in radio-operated squad cars. It even boasted a navy of vessels to scout smuggler’s coves.

The BCPP was disbanded in 1950 when the RCMP took over policing in the province. Ever since, voices are raised every few years to suggest the Mounties be replaced by a revived provincial police force. When federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews recently said B.C. had until November to accept a new 20-year deal or face withdrawal of RCMP services by 2014, Premier Christy Clark countered with the possibility of striking a new provincial police force.
Eric Hallam at home in Chilliwack

Mr. Hallam is one who does not think the RCMP will be leaving anytime soon.

“It’ll be too expensive,” he said. “Besides, you’d only be changing the uniform of the members who are here now. Where are we going to find 6,000 men to police this province? And where are the Mounties going to put 6,000 if they have to take them out of here?”

A constabulary was formed at Fort Langley with the founding of the colony of British Columbia in 1858. The authorities were eager to police a flood of pistol-packing gold prospectors from California.

Over the years, the provincial police did battle with naked Doukhobors and chased rumrunners through coastal waters. Forbes Cruickshank, an inspector with the BCPP, became famous for solving the mystery of the Beryl G, a vessel found abandoned with her decks specked by bloodstains. The owner and his son were missing. Having a hat and a camera as clues, the inspector tracked down Harry Sowash and Owen (Cannonball) Baker, who were hanged for murder.

It could be dangerous work. John Ussher, a constable, was shot to death in 1879 while persuing the notorious McLean brothers, outlaw horse thieves.

Seven years ago, Mr. Hallam, the longtime president of the BCPP veterans’ association, came to Victoria for the official unveiling of The Bastion, a monument on the grounds of the Legislature honouring police killed on duty. Among those named are 14 members of the BCPP.

Few in attendance knew Mr. Hallam came within a knife tip of being No. 15.

Born in Armstrong, he moved with his family to the Fraser Valley, where his parents ran a dairy farm. He did not care for milking cows with their manure-encrusted tails, so ran away from home on his 17th birthday to enlist with the Royal Canadian Navy as a boy seaman.

He served on North Atlantic convoys and fished the bodies of Allied soldiers from the English Channel following D-Day. After the war, he returned to Canada, joining the provincial police at age 21. He was posted to Prince Rupert, Ocean Falls and Bella Bella, and sent to the Kootenays at a time when the Sons of Freedom sect of Doukhobors were burning buildings in protest.

“I remember sitting up at nights in schools to prevent them from getting blown up,” he said.

In 1950, just a few weeks before the provincials were to be disbanded, he was ordered to join two other constables and a doctor in taking into custody Stanley Thacker, a 32-year-old man suffering from schizophrenia.

As they arrived at his house, Mr. Thacker jumped into a car and fled. The policed boxed in his car on a side road. As they tried to arrest him, the man lunged at the officers wielding what Mr. Hallam remembers as “a homemade six-inch knife made from a No. 10 bastard file.”

“I got five holes in me that night,” he said.

The constable got stabbed in the back and the left arm, the shiv puncturing a lung and the outer edge of his heart. One headline in an American newspaper the next day read: Police constable fighting for life.

“I should have died,” he said.

He survived, as did Mr. Thacker, who recovered after being shot in the abdomen by the officer.

When the 520-man provincial force was disbanded 10 weeks later, Mr. Hallam was one of the few not to join the RCMP, as the force wanted him to sign a waiver clearing them of future responsibility for lung or heart troubles. Instead, he joined the city police force in New Westminster, retiring as acting chief constable of the West Vancouver police.

After taking over policing in the province, the RCMP took a stash a weapons — including 49 revolvers, 15 automatics and four Great War-era machine-guns — and dumped them at sea. The Mounties also destroyed a quantity of B.C. Provincial Police badges and other insignia.

“It was a good organization,” he said. “I don’t think there was anything wrong with it at all.”

It has fallen to Mr. Hallam, 85, of Chilliwack, and his diminishing band of veterans to keep alive the memory of a force that policed the province for 92 years, from the gold-rush days to when a young constable nearly lost his life to a knfe-wielding man.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The mean streets claim 'our little waif'

Ariana Simpson was killed instantly when struck by a bus after being pushed. The man who pushed her was convicted of manslaughter on Friday.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 3, 2011


A young man pushed and a young woman fell. In that moment, one life ended and another became forever stained.

Shortly before midnight on a February night, a downtown Victoria street was the scene of a noisy confrontation. That in itself was not unusual. The intersection of Quadra Street and Pandora Avenue, a hangout for street people, all too often resembles a horror from Dante’s Inferno.

The corner’s reputation had lured two men, one of whom sought to buy cocaine. They had been drinking. One was belligerent. Earlier in the night, he had kicked the exterior of a taxi cab after having been told to leave a bar.

At the corner, the attempt to buy drugs turned into chaos. The drunken would-be drug buyer removed his shirt to do battle. His friend urged him to abandon the corner with its “junkies” and “crackheads.”

This advice did not go over well.

In the ensuing exchange, a slight, 20-year-old woman — “our little waif,” in her mother’s words — was pushed into the street, where she was crushed beneath the rear wheels of a passing city bus.

On Friday, after two days of deliberation, a jury convicted Christopher Michael Groves, 23, of manslaughter. He had been the one who trailed his belligerent buddy to the corner. A hearing to set a date for sentencing is scheduled for Wednesday.

After the sentence was delivered, some news reports relied on standard journalistic shorthand to describe the victim.

Crack addict. Homeless woman.

That is how the perpetrator saw the situation that terrible night in 2009.

He fled the scene, retreating from angry witnesses who beat him, seeking refuge at the police station four blocks to the north. The officer who arrested him testified that he said, “OK, I didn’t do anything though. I’m a good kid. ... Some (expletive) crackhead tried to attack my friend, some (expletive) junkie.”

One of the sadder accounts can be found in a Times Colonist story from the trial about the testimony of a witness who was aboard the bus that ran over the woman. According to the newspaper, the witness called 911 with the following report: “A junkie ran under the bus and it wasn’t the bus’s fault.”

It should be noted that the street scene on Pandora is fueled by middle-class drug users. Buy the product, denounce the vendor.

The unspoken verdict about crimes committed against street people is that they had it coming.

Ariana May Simpson was born on July 22, 1988. (The date seems so recent, yet Michael Dukakis had just been nominated by the Democrats, sprinter Ben Johnson was Canada’s Olympic hopeful, and Nelson Mandela still languished in a South African prison.) She was a third daughter for her family. Ariana attended elementary and high school in Esquimalt. She began hanging out on the street in her mid-teens.

In 1999, a trusted family friend was sentenced to a year in prison for sexual interference involving Ariana and others.

After her daughter’s death, Cindy Simpson, Ariana’s mother, wrote on Facebook about her “boiling anger for the man that hurt Ariana as a little girl — for years — without our knowledge.” It was him she wanted to see on trial for her death, for causing the pain that led her to the streets and a terrible fate.

At the corner where she died, her friends created a makeshift shrine in a planter bed. It held flowers and stuffed animals. A photograph of the smiling woman was stapled to a piece of cardboard. John Lennon lyrics were placed nearby, similarly protected from the elements by a plastic covering. Those who knew Harley, as she was known on the street and at the Our Place drop-in, were invited to write their condolences on an ordinary piece of cardboard torn from a box.

“I will always love you, my baby sister,” one of her sisters wrote.

The shrine is long gone, but in an eerie echo of our cyber age it can still be seen on Google Street View.

An artist painted her portrait on the wall of a bakery at the corner. It looked like one of those murals in tribute to a northern Irish martyr, only in this case the martial imagery is absent, replaced by butterflies, dogs and an eagle. The legend read, “Forever loved.” The portrait is now gone, too.

In memory, she will remain frozen at age 20, never to grow old. She was a young woman dealt a poor hand who wound up beneath a yellow tarp on a cold street, a victim yet again.