“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”
—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
“If it’s Tuesday it must be Belleville.”
—from the Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest Ontario tour diary
What an amazing year it’s been! Though in fairness I have to say for many of our dear friends in the Slocan Valley 2014 has brought great sorrow. Two sides of the same coin, as Dickens said. For me personally it was one of the best years in a decade while for others the reverse was probably true. But then, being an inveterate nonconformist, I’ve noticed my fate is often on an opposite trajectory with others. It’s like that old saying: “When my ship comes in, I’ll probably be at the airport.” ‘Wrong place, wrong time, every time,’ as I often say. It brings to mind the classical notion of Fate so beloved of the Romantic poets, an idea long out of fashion in this era of individualist self-determination.
With the eclipse of traditional religion in the West and the attendant rise of what I sometimes call the Guru Culture, where everyone has a self-improvement program to sell you in CD, DVD and iTunes download, the concept of Fate may seem quaint, even discredited. But is it? New discoveries in epigenetics have shown that not only past trauma, but even past memories can be transmitted genetically down the generations. Maybe what the poets meant by ‘Fate’ was really the harvest of our ancestors’ unfinished business. With science now supporting the fact that our family environment leaves its imprint on our genes, it raises the possibility that those of us who ‘remember past lives’ may be getting a more direct download from our own ancestral past. Allied to the concept of fate is something we know more as ‘luck,’ another hotly debated topic.
As it happens, this year I was at the right place at the right time for once—something I attribute in no small part to Anne, my amazing partner in life. If it’s true that two souls come together to make a whole, then it may also be true that such wholeness can repair a damaged fate. My book Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest: Canada’s Home Children in the West was published by Hagios Press of Regina in May. As anyone who has ever actually written a book can attest, a book is often the result of many years’ labour. Children’s Ghosts is the culmination of a project that began 7 years ago when I first started genealogical research into my grandfather Cyril Joyce. Not surprising then that one of Anne’s favourite proverbs is: “If you pray for potatoes, reach for a hoe.” However, my caveat to that, knowing the vicissitudes of fate, is that many writers and artists have labored intensely to produce works that were ignored by the world. Wrong time, wrong place. Poet Tom Wayman has often commented on the sheer dumb luck that so often seems to be such a factor in literary success. William Blake only ever had one small chapbook of poems published in his lifetime yet is now standard fare in every textbook on English literature. I rest my case.
Discovering in 2007 that my grandfather had been among the 100,000 or more impoverished, working class British children shipped to Canada to work as indentured servants from as young as age 5 was a fateful moment in my life. I realized that this was a story that was of direct personal relevance to as many as four million Canadian descendants of what were derisively known in Canada as ‘Home Children.’ (Also known as British Home Children or BHC.) Given that I’d driven myself to total collapse writing my last history, Hanging Fire and Heavy Horses: A History of Public Transportation in Nelson (City of Nelson, 2000)— intended as a centennial tribute to Nelson’s streetcars—I decided years ago that if I were ever to write another history, it must have at least a national audience. As I get older a new awareness that personal energy is not unlimited has forced me to think more carefully about the projects I take on.
As it happens with fate sometimes, the stars aligned for Children’s Ghosts. I was actually courted by two presses for the manuscript—Dundurn and Hagios—the first time that’s ever happened to me. In the end Hagios Press was the right choice for this book. Their mandate, which has changed slightly from “books that change readers’ lives”—a difficult claim to substantiate—to “books with a spiritual dimension,” chimed with my own mission to “lay the children’s ghosts to rest.” Dave Lorente, founder of Home Children Canada, who did much of the early work bringing this ignored history to light, believes that a majority of Home Children were abused. Some were even killed by their hosts. Yet Canadian BHC descendants remain divided on the question of an official apology from the Canadian government (such as already offered by British and Australian governments).
Anne and I toured across Canada with the book, visiting 24 cities and three villages (our little towns in the West Kootenay are too small to be known as ‘cities’). I estimate driving over 6,000 kilometres in Ontario and BC and our ‘air miles’ added up substantially too. Children’s Ghosts hit the Independent Booksellers Top 10 Nonfiction Bestseller List in Calgary shortly after we launched the book there at Shelf Life Books. By September, the first edition of 1,000 copies had sold out and we had to reprint—only getting our books in the nick of time as we arrived in Niagara-on-the-Lake to start an eight-date Ontario tour. That hectic tour was supported by Hagios who hired PR firm AJC Media—Andrea Christian and Solange Nicholson—to keep me busy doing interviews for local radio, newspapers and TV.
But lest we forget, it’s the story, not the storyteller, that’s important. We got to meet many descendants of British Home Children who eagerly shared their family stories with us and were grateful for another book that brings to light this too-often ignored yet vital aspect of Canadian history. I only wish I hadn’t been so exhausted after each reading or I’d have taken more careful note of the many stories people told me. Just having someone else writing about the story seemed to give people permission to tell family stories that had been locked up for generations.
On the other hand, our Slocan Lake communities suffered yet more body blows. It began with the drowning deaths of four young people, Lily (19), Skye (18), Hayden (21) and Jule (15) in a canoe accident on Slocan Lake May 10. The story made the national news but it’s hardly something any community wants to be known for. Thankfully in a village with only 500 residents, people tend to pull together. Anne and I had been out walking when we first heard the kids were missing so we pitched in with the lakeshore search until it was finally given up after midnight. The school brought in special counselors to help the community deal with its grief. It was amazing to see how local youth pulled together to support each other. Slocan Lake is enchantingly beautiful but if you’re not careful it can also kill you. Our deep, glacier-fed lakes in the Kootenays can go from calm as glass to six-foot swells within an hour.
Then in early October we had a double tragedy in the Slocan Valley. First came the incident in the Village of Slocan when Peter DeGroot allegedly shot at a police officer and then disappeared into the woods, prompting the largest manhunt the valley has ever seen, with up to 150 officers and helicopter support. Tragically, DeGroot was found in a cabin and killed by police. At a community meeting afterward, many residents expressed anger at what they felt was an outsize police response. Some felt more threatened by the massive police presence than by DeGroot, who was after all a neighbour. (More on this later.)
About the same time, well-known New Denver resident Peter Roulston went missing. Strangely for one so wilderness savvy, his body was found on the cliffs below the Silverton Lookout. He had been suffering from depression and had been hospitalized for it in the weeks leading up to his death. It seemed out of character for him but he was somewhat of a loner, with few close friends, although he was generally well liked. Roulston was a controversial character—he had a penchant for being the ultimate contrarian on every issue, often expressed in his letters to the Valley Voice. Still, he was a dedicated volunteer and a valued community member. We were away on the final book tour of the year at the time so I wrote a poem called Coyote Takes a Flying Leap and posted it on my blog in his memory. It’s a reminder that we may not always know someone the way we think we do. Who knows what private suffering another person endures?
In closing I wish to thank Anne Champagne, who trekked with me across Canada and was an indispensable Tour Manager. She was there at every booksigning and a better ambassador of goodwill I couldn’t have wished for. I also wish to thank Paul Wilson, my publisher, who was so easy to work with and so supportive. And of course, all the families we met on our tour who graciously opened their hearts and told us their stories.
Wishing you all the best during the Christmas season and in the New Year—2015!