Kootenay Lake poets release anthology

Just in time for National Poetry Month in April, a group of poets from Kaslo and area have released an anthology of their work titled Five Kootenay Lake Poets. The writers’ group, comprising Mark Mealing, Robert Banks Foster, Sheila Murray-Nellis, Anne Heard and Sheila Falle, have been meeting to workshop their verse since about 2004, inspired by a poetry workshop with Susan Andrews Grace.

The late great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda once said that, “my poetry was born between the hill and the river, it took its voice from the rain, and like the timber, it steeped itself in the forests.” Much the same could be said of these five poets, whose poems in this volume draw on the Kootenay landscape for theme and subject matter. Yet their scope goes far beyond that, drawing on literary influences from around the world.

Mark Mealing

Poet and Anglican minister Mark Mealing.

Mark Mealing, who studied folklore and ethnopoetics at the University of Pennsylvania, became fascinated with First Nations lore, particularly the Coyote trickster myths. His book Coyote’s Running Here was published in 1980 by Pulp Press and the theme is continued here. Mealing, who is the minister of St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Kaslo, has also studied classic Chinese verse forms and these metrics are transposed into English in several poems. Chinese poetry was typically written by aristocratic court poets who found themselves in exile for being on the wrong side of the politics of the day. Proving once again that well-crafted poetry never loses its social or political relevance, their poems of political corruption and chaos continue to resound through the ages. Mealing’s lines in Late Snow echo the classic Chinese poets and could have been written, not just of Trump’s presidency, but of any despotic ruler: “One ruler keeps his court leashed tight / and heaps sacrifices to greed and anger / his boot pressing the land and the people.”

Anne Heard reading at the Kaslo Public Library April 23rd. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Anne Heard’s poems hew closely to the Kootenay landscape she clearly loves, describing hikes into the Purcells, the Kaslo Community Garden, and other pastoral subjects. She deftly uses various poetic forms, including haiku (or as close as English can get to the original Japanese form), rhyming quatrains, or the more commonly used free verse. In To Carlyle Mountain Lodge, her interest in Kootenay history preserves a powerful memory:

Dave tells the story of three miners

working into November

caught in an avalanche

One killed outright

One injured, legs useless

One unscathed to go for help, never to arrive or to return

The injured man, snowshoes on hands

Made it to Cody, pulling himself along the snow

Heard also delves into folklore with The Enchanted Flounder Prince Left a Streak of Blood, which uses the traditional pantoum form to create a kind of fairy tale mantra. Heard says she has “memorized and recited, read and written poetry from childhood on,” making her something of an endangered species these days. “Authors on my bedside table include Tom Wayman, Art Joyce, Joy Kagawa and Lorna Crozier.”

Robert Banks Foster Conv 2012.2

Poet & photographer Robert Banks Foster. Photo by Linda Crosfield.

Robert Banks Foster was born in Victoria, BC but educated in both the US and Canada at the University of Victoria and Syracuse University. He was co-editor of the Canadian literary journal CV2 (Contemporary Verse) with legendary poet Dorothy Livesay. Foster weaves into his poems a deep environmental and social justice sensibility, with one suite, Water Sequence, inspired by the work of global water activist Maude Barlow: “Faith in the marketplace replaces many faiths. / All tears collected—the rushing river hits the rocks.” In his suite Glacial Going, a tribute to the Jumbo Requiem, his influences draw from a wide range of literature—Andrew Marvel, Aeschylus, William Dunbar and John Ralston Saul. The language is sparse yet precise in its evocation of glacial beauty, interspersed with quotes from these poets and authors. Far from merely flexing his intellectual muscle, these serve as a kind of chorus of voices from the history of literature. The poem foregrounds the reality of our global environmental crisis in powerfully compressed language: “The glacial tongue leaves a lake. / Ice faces vanish into the faces of the rocks.” Foster displays the poet’s skill in distilling social phenomena into a few lines: “The cosmeticians who teach us imperfection so they / can perfect us. / We belong to the land. / We are told to rape our mother.”

Sheila Murray-Nellis reads at the Kaslo Public Library April 23rd. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Sheila Murray-Nellis clearly got Aristotle’s memo that the command of metaphor is at the heart of poetic genius. Her poems are both an evocation of wilderness and a tribute to the creatures that inhabit it. I’m reminded of nature photographer Jim Lawrence’s breathtaking portraits of grizzlies, eagles, and other animals. In her poem The Wolf, this much-maligned creature “lifts his snout / to the wind’s ladder… asking his question…” This is poetry at its best, employing unique use of language to challenge our perceptions, make them new again. Wolf Cull, another pantoum, reminds us that our weapons are “more deadly than tooth and claw.” Yet her compassion extends to the human animal too, “the myriad ways we fall / and still… get up each day.” (Conversation) She grew up in New England, where she “enjoyed readings by many of the great American poets.” She has twice won first prize in the Kootenay Literary Competition (2012 and 2012), giving her the confidence to publish a collection titled You Are Meant to Be Like Fire and a book of poems and photographs titled Presence. She is also the author of two children’s books. “Writing poetry is a contemplative experience for me,” she says. “I look for the words to express what is just beneath the surface of things.”

Sheila Falle reads at the Kaslo Public Library April 23rd. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Sheila Falle writes primarily in free verse, but with taut lines that allow no room for excess verbiage to get in the way of the images and ideas she presents—a key lesson all poets must learn. Demonstrating a haiku-like precision, in just three lines, I Believe illustrates the point: “Rhymes that wind inside the mind / like the tangle of a too-long nightgown / awaken.” Again, In Spring uses just a few words to create a vivid picture: “Bright green on each tip makes / spring fir trees look like / ruffled party dresses…” Like the other poets, Falle explores a folklore theme in Riddled by Stars with her unique take on Humpty Dumpty. “My poetic education and background began in early childhood with Dad’s love of the sounds found in poems and songs,” she recalls. “Now I favour poems that distill and universalize experience yet remain each poet’s own expression.”

My only criticism is that it would have been useful to have a table of contents. Five Kootenay Lake Poets will be available on Amazon in April as either a print or e-book.

Posted in Arts & Culture, book reviews, Poetry, The Kootenays | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Brave New World of 1984

  1. Entertained to Death

“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.” —Harry S. Truman

It’s a scene straight out of a dystopian novel. After Kellyanne Conway defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s use of the term “alternative facts,” sales of George Orwell’s novel 1984 soared, driving it to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. This isn’t the first time real world events have intersected with the long afterlife of the book. According to the Washington Post, “Sales of the novel also enjoyed a marked spike in 2013—one edition experiencing a 10,000 percent jump in sales—following the leak of National Security Administration documents.”[1] Given the mind-bending distortions of language indulged by the Trump administration, it’s clear we are indeed living in a 21st century Orwellian dystopia, or at very least an empire in the final stages of terminal decline.

Already by the time of the 1966 edition shown here, Brave New World had sold nearly 3 million copies in 33 editions. It and 1984 should be read together to get a full picture of autocracy.

That said, I’ve always maintained that the novels 1984 and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley need to be read together as companion volumes if one wants a true picture of the social engineering that has taken place during the past half century or so. As other commentators have pointed out, Orwell’s vision was extrapolated from the post World War II communist bloc developing in Russia and Eastern Europe. The coercive methods of control adopted by the Big Brother state in 1984 were reminiscent of the Stalinist cadre that operated by means of brutal repression and a Ministry of Truth-style media. It’s a totalitarian state that was envisioned as early as 1921 in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We, predating the publication of Brave New World by more than a decade and 1984 by nearly 30 years. We was certainly an influence on Orwell and probably Huxley too, though he denied it.[2]

A young Aldous Huxley.

By contrast to the punitive regimes envisioned in We and 1984, Huxley’s dystopia maintains its control by genetic engineering, the state-sanctioned drug ‘soma,’ and the programmed sensual indulgence of its members. As Huxley himself commented in Brave New World Revisited, a series of essays about the novel published in 1958, “In light of what we have recently learned about animal behaviour in general, and human behaviour in particular, it has become clear that control through the punishment of undesirable behaviour is less effective, in the long run, than control through the reinforcement of desirable behaviour by rewards, and that government through terror works on the whole less well than government through the non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women and children.”[3]

As Huxley explains, overt repression, in the long run, doesn’t tend to work as well as learning how to keep a population sensually gratified. “Almost everyone starts out with a prejudice in favour of beer, cigarettes and ice boxes,” he wrote, “whereas almost nobody starts out with a prejudice in favour of tyrants.”[4] The collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the late 1980s proves the point. Continual repression tends to result over time in either open rebellion or a self-destructive internal rot. Meanwhile, Western nations have been engineering a subtle form of state control that owes more to the current glut of personal digital devices and 24/7 wall-to-wall entertainment than it does to any overt forms of repression. The irony is that for many of us, entertainment has become a refuge from the exponentially increasing stresses of modern living. But its role as a pacifier of citizens has been known at least since the Roman Empire, when, Huxley wrote, “the populace was kept in good humour by frequent, gratuitous doses of many kinds of entertainment, from poetical dramas to gladiatorial fights, from recitations of Virgil to all-out boxing, from concerts to military reviews and public executions. But even in Rome there was nothing like the non-stop distraction now provided by newspapers and magazines, by radio, television and the cinema. In Brave New World non-stop distractions of the most fascinating nature (the feelies, orgy-porgy, centrifugal bumble-puppy) are deliberately used as instruments of policy, for the purpose of preventing people from paying too much attention to the realities of the social and political situation.”[5]

Zamyatin’s novel We was an early example of the dystopian novel that influenced Orwell and Huxley.

Thought control is another essential tool in the dictator’s armory and in Brave New World this is accomplished through hypnopedia, exposing sleeping children to a steady stream of whispered propaganda designed to instill unquestioning obedience to the social order. Although the technique has since been discredited,[6] in modern advertising we have far more proven methods in use for brainwashing. With some homes now leaving their TVs on steadily from early morning ’til late evening, children often grow up in a media saturated environment, with its subtle conditioning of values via ads promoting consumption. As the documentary The Corporation noted, advertising companies employ PhD psychologists to advise staff on expert methods of manipulation, among them the ‘nag factor.’ “Targeting children makes a lot of sense from a marketing perspective,” writes The Corporation author Joel Bakan, “as it allows advertisers to bypass media-savvy parents and engage the considerable persuasive power children wield over their parents. Children are also easier to manipulate than adults… the youngest viewers… cannot distinguish advertising from regular television programming…” [7] Multiply this sophisticated psychological manipulation by 24/7 saturation bombing via movies, TV and pop-up ads on digital media, and you have a brainwashing environment easily analogous to Brave New World’s sleep conditioning. “The average American child sees 30,000 commercials a year on television alone… Comparing the marketing of yesteryear to the marketing of today is like comparing a BB gun to a smart bomb,” explains Harvard Medical School expert Dr. Susan Linn. “The advertising that children are exposed to today is honed by psychologists… And also it’s everywhere. They can’t escape it.”[8]

And if, as Marshall Macluhan said, “the medium is the message,” then the current obsession with ‘smart’ phones, iPads and other digital gadgets has reached critical proportions, creating generations of children addicted to their devices. In a New York Post article by Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, based on his book Glow Kids, he argued that, “young children exposed to too much screen time are at risk of developing an addiction ‘harder to kick than drugs.’ …Recent brain imaging research is showing that they affect the brain’s frontal cortex—which controls executive functioning, including impulse control—in exactly the same way that cocaine does.”[9] Author Nicholas Carr adds, “The Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.”[10] And it’s clear from neurological research that the rapid-fire, short attention span nature of digital media is literally rewiring our brains, and probably not for the better. Yet school boards everywhere are investing wholesale in iPads as ‘educational devices’ despite studies showing they lead to a decline in academic outcomes.[11] National Post journalist John Robson wrote of the absurdity of a new stationary bike with a video screen being marketed for small children. “In terms of developing young minds, very little could be more beneficial than going outdoors, on foot or on an actual bike, exposing your brain to reality in all its dimensions… Pry your kid away from artificiality in all its forms.”[12]

  1. Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out

In Brave New World, due to the sterilization of women and the use of their ovaries in “hatcheries” designed to condition fetuses to fit specific social castes, sexual freedom is universal and another useful tool in keeping the population from resisting the established order. This too has contemporary resonance. The sexual revolution of the 1960s, at first viewed with horror by the governing elite, has turned out to be incredibly useful in keeping people distracted. And isn’t it just possible that the millions of pounds of hormone-disrupting pesticides and herbicides sprayed on food crops every year[13] is a causative factor in the current wave of “gender dysphoria”? Gender and sexual orientation tend to be core issues of personal identity, so if these are in question, it’s a matter of all-consuming importance to individuals. Understandably, that can leave little time or energy for political action beyond the identity politics of the group with which they identify, further fracturing resistance to the State’s broader agenda. But, as usual in Western culture, we skip right past causative factors and rush to normalize the effects, since any serious examination of root causes could lead to a dent in corporate profits.

Robert Whitaker’s book chronicles the addiction of America to psychiatric drugs of questionable efficacy.

The One Percent were similarly dismayed by the rise of the drug culture in the ’60s amongst youth, though it was a hypocritical concern, given that they’d already been medicating adults with questionable drugs such as Miltown since the 1950s. Huxley in Brave New World Revisited wrote extensively of the various drugs being road tested during that era, and was right to see a fulfillment of his prophetic vision. In the social order of Brave New World, a drug known as ‘soma’ is handed out with the paycheques, inducing a state of either euphoria or restful sleep depending on the dose. While the socialist distribution of soma in the novel parts ways with today’s multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical profits, its prevalence in daily life is true to form. A recent report by epidemiologist Elizabeth Kantor of Harvard University charted an increase in the use of prescription drugs in America from 51 percent to 59 percent just between 1999 and 2002. “However, one of the most startling increases was in the use of antidepressants, with use steadily growing at every two-year measuring period,” doubling from 6.8 percent to 13 percent of Americans.[14] Yet despite the fact that these drugs are prescribed as ‘safe and effective’ medical treatments, notes author Robert Whitaker, “the number of disabled mentally ill in the United States has skyrocketed,”[15] from one in every 468 Americans suffering from mental illness in 1955 to one in every 184 by 1987, with that figure rising annually. “Canadians now take 50 million prescriptions for antidepressants a year, so we can’t be that happy in our Brave New World,” writes John Robson.[16]

What’s even more disturbing is that childhood—that state once held by society as sacrosanct—has now been invaded by this onslaught of drugs. “Mental illness is now the leading cause of disability in children,”[17] writes Whitaker, with more than 500,000 children on the disability rolls in the US for some form of mental illness. Given the dubious efficacy of modern SSRI antidepressants (test data have so far failed to confirm any statistically significant improvement in depression compared with placebo),[18] it’s arguable that this huge rise in mental illness is as much worsened as improved by these drugs. “Twenty years ago, our society began regularly prescribing psychiatric drugs to children and adolescents, and now one out of every 15 Americans enters adulthood with a ‘serious mental illness.’”[19] The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in December 2013 on a study that covered the period 2005–2010, noting that, “more than six percent of adolescents reported the use of psychotropic medications.”[20] Even more worrying, the National Health Interview Survey for 2011–2012 reported that, “Seven and one-half percent of children aged 6–17 years used prescribed medication during the past six months for emotional or behavioral difficulties,” with the highest portion of this group concentrated among families living below the poverty line. [21]

From that perspective, the pharmacological experiment in treating mental illness may be judged mostly an abject failure, as Whitaker’s extensive research shows. However, it has had the effect of making generations of people dependent upon these drugs. And cultivating dependency is always a useful means of keeping a population subservient, just as much so as financial slavery through debt. Huxley’s ‘soma’ was itself a kind of idealist’s view of the effectiveness of pharmacology, just in its infancy in the 1930s when he wrote Brave New World and only beginning to flourish in the ’50s when he wrote Brave New World Revisited. Soma was supposed to have no side effects, an unrealistic expectation for any drug, however benevolent. The very notion of medicating children as young as six with psychotropic drugs, when their brains and immune systems are still in the vulnerable stages of early development, is insane. This is what happens when public health policy is driven by the profit motive. In a way it’s too bad hypnopedia doesn’t work. At least it would be a whole lot less toxic.

  1. Hybridizing Dystopia: Where Do We Go From Here?

So what we have today is a hybrid dystopia comprised of elements of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. The total surveillance state envisioned by Orwell has been a reality since the inception of the Patriot Act in the US and similar security bills in Canada and Britain. The ubiquitous screens in 1984 that double as ‘news’ networks and surveillance devices in every home have a close analogue in the so-called ‘smart grid,’ enabled by electrical ‘smart meters’ and the ‘Internet of things’ now being rolled out. We’re reassured that the only data being collected has to do with our consumption habits but as Wikileaks has already made clear, Americans and Canadians are routinely spied upon by their governments in the ongoing ‘war on terror.’ It reminds me of a scene from Terry Gilliam’s brilliant film Brazil, in which a shopping centre is blown apart by a terrorist bomb and the wrong man is eventually arrested and tortured. This has already had a real life counterpart in the tragic story of Syrian-born Canadian Maher Arar, who was extradited to Syria and tortured based on misinformation from intelligence agencies. Gilliam also seems to have realized when he made the film in 1985 that the Western world’s future dystopia would be the bastard child of 1984 and Brave New World.

Orwell, it turns out, got a lot right in 1984, but Huxley nailed the consumer capitalist nightmare.

And as the very first press conference held by the Trump government made clear, we also now have a world power willing to employ the Orwellian principle of ‘doublethink’ with concepts like ‘alternate facts.’ Certainly they aren’t the first to do so—Hitler and Stalin made good use of the technique as well. “In the case of a word like democracy,” Orwell wrote in his classic essay Politics and the English Language, “not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy… Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.” The US government has traditionally made this a hallmark of their propaganda operations, just as the perpetually warring nations of 1984 did, justifying invasions and regime overthrow as ‘bringing democracy’ to those in need.

Also like the fictional nations of Orwell’s novel, the US since its inception has been in a more or less constant state of war as a primary support of its domestic industries. Between 1898 and 1934 alone, notes author Joel Andreas, “the Marines invaded Cuba four times, Nicaragua five times, Honduras seven times, the Dominican Republic four times, Haiti twice, Guatamala once, Panama twice, Mexico three times, and Colombia four times.”[22] Although unlike the political powers in 1984, who maintained the fiction of war as a means of social control, American wars have been quite real and quite profitable. Just in 2004, the US military portion of the federal budget accounted for 51 percent of all government spending.[23] Already by 1950, General Electric chairman Charles Wilson admitted that without keeping the populace convinced of the imminent threat of war, “it would be impossible for Congress to vote the vast sums now being spent to avert this danger…”[24] In a page straight out of Orwell’s novel, GE—a producer of military hardware—would go on to acquire radio and TV stations to reinforce this message.[25]

Addicted to War is an indispensable companion to the reading of American history.

The way forward for citizens of conscience is obviously away from policies of constant war, corporate bailouts at public expense, exponentially increasing poverty, and the indoctrinating of our children in consumerism. The million-dollar question, of course, is always: How? Clearly the fracturing of dissent that has been fostered by digital media and the pursuit of identity politics will need to be halted, if not reversed, if any progress is to be made. It will require the kind of broad solidarity movements that effectively brought about women’s right to vote, rights for blacks and gays, and the labour movement of the Great Depression era. That requires getting our kids off the soma of digital addiction, while replacing ‘clicktivism’ and social media campaigning with boots-on-the-ground, face-to-face community building of unions and civic associations. Otherwise, Huxley warned, “A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time… not here and now… but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it.”[26]

Huxley wrote of the need for “education for freedom,” something the Left has long understood. Unfortunately, education alone isn’t enough in a sociopolitical paradigm maintained by the subtle coercions and brainwashing of consumerism. Huxley makes the point by using the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tale as a metaphor: “In charge of advertising we find an anti-democratic… Mr. Hyde—or rather a Dr. Hyde, for Hyde is now a PhD in psychology and has a master’s degree as well in the social sciences… And he does this… simply in order to find out the best way to take advantage of their ignorance and to exploit their irrationality for the pecuniary benefit of his employers.”[27]

Joel Bakan, author of The Corporation. Wikimedia Commons.

In other words, Huxley foresaw that, as The Corporation’s Joel Bakan points out, social justice advocates are up against expert professional manipulators. It will take far more than good values and goodwill to defeat them. Thankfully progressives have their own experts, such as cognitive linguist George Lakoff, a former adviser to the Democratic Party whose books and articles apply his research to political action.[28] His work refutes the common misconception of humans as ‘rational actors’ who simply need to be educated properly in order to make the correct choices. Huxley hinted at this in Brave New World Revisited when he wrote: “Such an education for freedom should be… an education first of all in facts and in values—the fact of individual diversity and genetic uniqueness and the values of freedom, tolerance and mutual charity which are the ethical corollaries of these facts. But unfortunately correct knowledge and sound principles are not enough. An unexciting truth may be eclipsed by a thrilling falsehood. A skillful appeal to passion is often too strong for the best of good resolutions. The effects of false and pernicious propaganda cannot be neutralized except by a thorough training in the art of analyzing its techniques and seeing through its sophistries.”[29] This latter recommendation—what amounts to a kind of Media Literacy 101—while undoubtedly a great idea, has yet to happen, though I’ve long been an advocate of having such courses taught in high school. And “a thrilling falsehood” certainly describes many of the “alternate facts” espoused by members of the Trump team, who—like ‘Dr.’ Hyde—know how to push the right hot buttons to get the reaction they want. As Lakoff has explained, Right-wing strategists have long understood that people respond to values statements, not facts or policy papers.[30]

Huxley winds up his dystopian critique by arguing for the teaching of “a set of generally acceptable values based upon a solid foundation of facts. …the value of charity and compassion, based upon the old familiar fact, lately rediscovered by modern psychiatry… that, whatever their mental and physical diversity, love is as necessary to human beings as food and shelter; and finally the value of intelligence, without which love is impotent and freedom unattainable.”[31]

NOTE: For more discussion of Orwellian/Huxleyan dystopia, check out ‘Welcome to dystopia—George Orwell experts on Donald Trump’ at The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/25/george-orwell-donald-trump-kellyanne-conway-1984

Neil Postman’s son Andrew Postman has written that his father’s 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, forewarned that we’d be facing a Huxleyan, not an Orwellian future: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/feb/02/amusing-ourselves-to-death-neil-postman-trump-orwell-huxley?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GU+Today+main+NEW+H+categories&utm_term=211477&subid=15377526&CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2

And finally, the venerable Margaret Atwood, thanks to her celebrity, gets the jump on me in this well-thought out essay: https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/find-your-next-read/extracts/2017/feb/margaret-atwood-introduces-a-brand-new-world/#Tw4JxOPHSsVTRlqm.99


[1] Travis M. Andrews, “Sales of George Orwell’s 1984 spike after Trump spokesperson presents ‘alternative facts’’’, Washington Post, January 25, 2017. http://news.nationalpost.com/news/world/sales-of-george-orwells-1984-spike-after-trump-spokesperson-presents-alternative-facts accessed February 2, 2017.

[2] Wikipedia entry for Zamyatin’s novel We. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_(novel)

[3] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, Harper & Row Perennial Library, 1965 edition, p. 5.

[4] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, ibid., p. 49.

[5] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, ibid., p. 36.

[6] Jonas Mikka Luster, MS Medicine and Healthcare, Goethe University Frankfurt, “What is Hypnopedia and How Does it Work?”, https://www.quora.com/What-is-hypnopedia-and-how-does-it-work, accessed February 2, 2017. See also Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep-learning

[7] Joel Bakan, The Corporation, Penguin Group Canada, 2004, pp. 120, 121–22.

[8] Joel Bakan, The Corporation, ibid., p. 123.

[9] Nicholas Kardaras, “The Frightening Effects of Digital Heroin,” New York Post, August 27, 2016, http://nypost.com/2016/08/27/its-digital-heroin-how-screens-turn-kids-into-psychotic-junkies/, accessed February 2, 2017.

[10] Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, W.W. Norton & Co., New York / London, 2011 edition, p. 116.

[11] “Investing heavily in school computers and classroom technology does not improve pupils’ performance, says a global study from the OECD. The think tank says frequent use of computers in schools is more likely to be associated with lower results.” Sean Coughlin, “Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results, says OECD,” BBC News, September 15, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/business-34174796 accessed February 3, 2017.

[12] John Robson, “Developing Minds, Bodies Need Reality,” National Post, January 9, 2017 p. A8.

[13] “Roundup, which contains the active molecule Glyphosate, was described as an endocrine disrupter because non-cytotoxic concentrations inhibited progesterone synthesis in vitro.” Study conducted by Fiona Young, Dao Ho, Danielle Glynn and Vicki Edwards at the Department of Medical Biotechnology at Flinders University, Adelaide, South Australia. Many other studies verify this data.

[14] Justin Karter, “Percentage of Americans on Antidepressants Nearly Doubles,” Mad in America website, https://www.madinamerica.com/2015/11/percentage-of-americans-on-antidepressants-nearly-doubles/ accessed February 2, 2017.

[15] Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, Broadway Books, New York, 2015 edition, pp. 5, 6.

[16] John Robson, “Developing Minds, Bodies Need Reality,” National Post, January 9, 2017 p. A8.

[17] Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic, ibid., p. 8.

[18] “The new drugs, it turned out, were no more effective than the old ones,” writes Whitaker. “Erick Turner from Oregon Health and Science University, in a review of FDA data for 12 antidepressants approved between 1987 and 2004, determined that 36 of the 74 trials had failed to show any statistical benefit for the antidepressants.” Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic, ibid., p. 155.

[19] Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic, ibid., p. 246.

[20] CDC, “Psychotropic Medication Use Among Adolescents: United States, 2005–2010,” CDC website, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db135.htm#x2013;2010</a> accessed February 2, 2017.

[21] CDC, “Use of Medication Prescribed for Emotional or Behavioral Difficulties Among Children Aged 6–17 Years in the United States, 2011–2012,” April 2014, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db148.htm#x2013;17%20Years%20in%20the%20United%20States,%202011–2012%20</a>, accessed February 2, 2017.

[22] Joel Andreas, Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Can’t Kick Militarism, AK Press, 2004, p. 7.

[23] Joel Andreas, Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Can’t Kick Militarism, ibid., p. 1.

[24] Joel Andreas, Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Can’t Kick Militarism, ibid., p. 59.

[25] In 1984, enemies of the state are just as carefully cultivated, “object(s) of hatred more constant than either Eurasia or Eastasia, since when Oceania was at war with one of these Powers it was generally at peace with the other.” 1984, Penguin edition, 1983, p. 14.

[26] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, ibid., p. 37.

[27] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, ibid., pp. 47, 48.

[28] See George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, Chelsea Green Publishers, Vermont, 2004.

[29] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, ibid., p. 104, italics mine.

[30] Don Hazen writes in the Introduction to Don’t Think of an Elephant!: “As polls dramatically underscored (in the 2004 American election), many Americans voted their moral identity and values, often at the expense of their economic interests.” Ibid., p. xi.

[31] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, ibid., p. 107, italics mine.

Posted in Books, Civilization, Democracy, Political Commentary | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Apology as Public Ritual: Why It’s Still Important

  1. The Evolution of Apology

“Confession is good for the soul.”

Though we in the 21st century West are living in a post-religious age, the role of ritual is no less important to human nature than it ever was. This is why, even as people redefine cultural institutions like marriage, the ritual element remains in some form. The difference is that while in the past we were happy to let the church design our rituals, with marriage, custom-designed vows and ceremonies are now considered acceptable.

And what is an apology if not a ritual act? It can be the first signal that the person apologizing has acknowledged their wrong and is prepared to make restitution. In a capitalist society that too often means financial reparations, but it doesn’t have to for the ritual to have lasting value and meaning. It’s a foundational principle for restorative justice, where instead of punishment or vengeance for crimes committed against them, wronged families seek an agreed-upon set of actions demonstrating remorse and restitution.

Gibbs Home Sherbrooke

Church of England Gibbs House hostel, Sherbrooke, Québec. Former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe is the grandson of a British Home Child. Boys and girls were emigrated from Britain in groups of up to 200.

Sociologists have studied the role of apologies in personal and societal relations extensively. In A Theory of Apologies, Benjamin Ho of the Stanford Graduate School of Business notes that, “Beyond the use of apologies in daily interpersonal interactions, apologies appear in international design, political reputations, legal litigation, international relations, corporate governance, and beyond.”[1] Ho cites sociologist Nicholas Tavuchis, who sees apology “as a kind of social exchange, a device that somehow restores social order paradoxically without altering the thing which is being apologized for.”[2]

This differs from the Greek root word ‘apologia,’ a “justification, explanation or excuse of an incident or course of action,” or “a defense of a person or vindication of an institution,” such as in Elizabethan poet Philip Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry (published 1595).[3] In an interesting example of social evolution, in 1590, a parallel meaning had emerged for apology, meaning a “frank expression of regret.”[4] By 1597 the verb form ‘apologize’ had come into use, while retaining its original connotation of ‘making a defense or excuse.’[5]

Barnardo's trunk books Ivy 1 low res

These were two of the books included in the child migrant’s steamer trunk, sometimes along with Sankey’s Hymn Book and ‘The Traveller’s Guide from Life to Death.’ Courtesy Ivy Sucee collection.

Elazar Barkan and Alexander Karn, in their book Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation, see state apologies as a logical extension of social evolution: “Despite new tensions and escalating hostilities associated with what some view as the new world disorder, apology remains a powerful trend in global politics. Even as cycles of violence propagate in some spots, in others we see rival groups willing to put their troubled histories in the service of justice and peace.”[6] While the authors admit that, “apologies pry open the chapters of history which some prefer to remain closed… In the best cases, the negotiation of apology works to promote dialogue, tolerance, and cooperation between groups… Although they obviously do not erase or undo what has already happened, apologies can amend the past so that it resonates differently in the present for those who feel aggrieved by it or responsible for it.”[7]

If it was as simple as just saying sorry and letting it go at that, there would be nothing more to say. But an apology and its accompanying ritual is proportional to the gravity of the act being apologized for. There’s a huge difference between a mumbled sorry for forgetting to take the turkey out of the oven and burning it and apologizing for imprisoning an entire ethnic group during wartime based merely on guilt by association. Tavuchis calls this kind of formal state apology a “secular remedial ritual.”[8]

Hazelbrae Home low res

Barnardo’s Hazelbrae receiving home for girls, Peterborough, Ontario. Girls typically only stayed a few days here before being sent to work on farms in the region. Courtesy Peterborough Museum & Archives.

But as clinical psychologist Dr. Colm O’Connor points out, state rituals have their counterparts in the small rituals of home. “When one of your children hurts another child, be it a sibling or friend, you will typically ask your child to do two things—apologize for the hurt caused and make amends in some way. For small children it might be ‘Now give your little sister a hug and say you are sorry.’ For older children it may involve some repair of the damage like, ‘Now shake hands and give your brother half of your bar of chocolate,’ or ‘Don’t just say sorry, say it like you mean it. Now try again,’ says the mother. In all of these parenting situations the parent realizes that to repair hurt caused two things are required—a verbal apology and a ritual apology. The ritual apology is having the offender do something visible and concrete that enacts the apology. It is the hug, the shake hands, the walk to the neighbour’s front door, etc.”[9]

Owen portrait high res

Alfred Owen, chief of Barnardo’s Canadian operations in Toronto, was forced to resign in 1919 due to scandal over sexual impropriety with girls in his care.

This extends to adulthood, when for example an alcoholic finally realizes he is wronging his family by indulging his addiction. As Dr. O’Connor writes: “In the twelve-step program of AA there is a crucial step to recovery where the alcoholic has to ‘make amends for past wrongs.’ It is a powerful step because not only must the alcoholic apologize for his past wrongs, he/she must make amends for them. In other words, a verbal apology is never sufficient. What is required is some form of repair, reparation, or atonement.”[10]

By extension of this logic, a similar process of ‘ritual apology’ applies to the state. In 2009 the Irish Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse presided over by Judge Sean Ryan delivered its final report. It details the results of the Commission’s forensic investigation into the 170,000 children who were incarcerated in the paupers’ workhouse system operated by the Catholic Church during the 20th century.[11] O’Connor concludes: “The Catholic Church is steeped in a tradition of symbolism and ritual. It knows, as it has for many centuries, that humankind responds and communicates more through symbol and ritual than through language. … it is my view that what is required of the religious now is to ritualize their apology in a way that is visible, enacted, and symbolized. A ritualized apology carries far greater power than a verbal one.”[12] The point is doubly underscored by the recent discovery of 800 child and infant remains at the former Catholic orphanage Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home operated by nuns in Tuam, County Galway.[13]

  1. Canada’s British Home Children: Making Good on Apology

The apology motion brought forward on February 16 by Bloc Québécois MP Luc Thériault in the Canadian House of Commons has made a great start at righting another of history’s wrongs. However well-intentioned they may have been, the philanthropists who emigrated up to 150,000 poor children to the British colonies created a legacy not just of opportunity for a new beginning, but of neglect, trauma and even abuse that resonates down the generations. As Dr. O’Connor’s comments suggest, however, an apology delivered in the House of Commons without its public ritual component remains incomplete. The story was only picked up by one mainstream news outlet, the Montréal Gazette. If you blinked you missed it, unless you’re a politician or an avid follower of parliamentary business.

The House of Commons apology is just the latest event in an initiative that has a long history in this country, if you include statements made by former British Home Children themselves. (One of the best sources is Phyllis Harrison’s 1978 book The Home Children, recorded in their own words.) Certainly not all of them are in favour of an apology. Whether or not they are in favour seems to depend on how they were treated as children. But that shouldn’t negate the experiences of all the others who were forced to sleep in freezing attics or barns, not given adequate medical care or schooling, socially stigmatized, verbally abused, physically or sexually molested, and even killed.

Barnardo's Peter St. home Toronto

Barnardo’s Peter Street receiving home for boys in Toronto with boys’ band. Owen believed to be back row, far left. All was not quite as it seemed from this photo.

Lori Oschefski, who formed the British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association, has been circulating apology petitions since 2012. Working with her MP Judy Sgro (Liberal, Humber River-Black Creek), this petition was first presented in Parliament in February, March, and October 2013. Sgro presented Oschefski’s second apology petition on May 12, 2014 and again on June 2, 2015. The Private Member’s motion I co-drafted with former MP Alex Atamanenko (NDP, BC Southern Interior) was presented in the House February 19, 2015. Sandra Joyce and Karen Mahoney of British Home Child Group International collected thousands of signatures for their 2015 petition.  Sgro presented another petition with 1,800 signatures from Oschefski in March and June 2015. [14] When Richard Cannings was elected to the newly redrawn riding formerly represented by Atamanenko, one of his first acts in Parliament was to present our motion again. With the support of former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, success was finally achieved with Thériault’s motion this February.[15]

In fact the call for a federal government apology was raised as early as 2009, during the Parliamentary debates regarding the proclamation of 2010 as the ‘Year of the British Home Child’ in Canada. While all parties in the House had no problem agreeing to that proposal, NDP MPs Olivia Chow and Jim Malloway pressed the Harper government for something more. “As I said in my letter to the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism two weeks ago,” said Chow, “the 100,000 British home children and their descendants need a formal apology from Parliament. More needs to be done. …We thank all of the British home children for their contribution. They helped build our country. They helped define Canada. …We apologize for the treatment they received.” Malloway, MP for Elmwood–Transcona, Manitoba, added: “Given that this motion appears to have the full support of all 308 members of Parliament, it is just a logical extension from there that an apology should be in order.”[16]

Duceppe, then leader of the Bloc, made an eloquent statement that deserves to be read in its entirety. He made it clear that he too was in favour of an official apology: “The shame here is in the wrongdoing, not in the apology. What is shameful is the fact that we tolerated this situation for so long, for nearly a century, that we tacitly accepted this insidious form of slavery. …Now it is time to face the facts. The voice of history is loud and clear, and we must respond. We must stand up and apologize to the victims for the tragedy they experienced.”[17]

What these Parliamentarians are saying, in not so many words, is that for any official apology to be truly meaningful, it must be accompanied by public ritual. The precedents are there: the ceremonies held in Canberra, Australia and London, England in 2009 and 2010. After all, confession is as good for the soul of a nation as it is for its individual citizens.


[1] Benjamin Ho, A Theory of Apologies, Introduction, draft paper, March 2005 revision, p. 2, accessed online at https://web.stanford.edu/group/peg/Papers%20for%20call/ho-apologies-mar2005-draft.pdf.

[2] Benjamin Ho, A Theory of Apologies, ibid., p. 10.

[3] Nicholas Tavuchis, Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation, Stanford University Press, 1991, p. 16.

[4] ‘Apologia,’ Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apologia.

[5] Nicholas Tavuchis, Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation, ibid., p. 16.

[6] Elazar Barkan and Alexander Karn, Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation, Stanford University Press, 2006, p. 5.

[7] Elazar Barkan and Alexander Karn, Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation, ibid., pp. 7, 8.

[8] Nicholas Tavuchis, Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation, ibid., p. 13.

[9] Dr. Colm O’Connor, Ritual Apology, web archived paper, https://www.google.ca/#q=the+role+of+apology+in+public+ritual&* For Dr. O’Connor’s qualifications see http://www.drcolmoconnor.com.

[10] Dr. Colm O’Connor, Ritual Apology, web archived paper, ibid.

[11] Steve James, ‘Irish child abuse: The Ryan Report cover-up,’ World Socialist Website, May 26, 2009, https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2009/05/irel-m26.html; ‘Children exposed to ‘daily terror’ in institutions,’ The Irish Times, May 20, 2009, http://www.irishtimes.com/news/children-exposed-to-daily-terror-in-institutions-1.840805.

[12] Dr. Colm O’Connor, Ritual Apology, web archived paper, ibid.

[13] Jamie Grierson, ‘Mass grave of babies and children found at Tuam care home in Ireland,’ The Guardian, March 3, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/03/mass-grave-of-babies-and-children-found-at-tuam-orphanage-in-ireland.

[14] ‘Parliament BHC Apology Petitions – Their Progress,’ British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association (BHCARA) website, http://www.britishhomechildren.com/apology-petition—progress.

[15] For details see my previous article, “House of Commons passes apology motion for British Home Children,” chameleonfire1 blog, https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2017/02/23/house-of-commons-passes-apology-motion-for-british-home-children/.

[16] House of Commons debates, December 7, 2009, Open Parliament, https://openparliament.ca/debates/2009/12/7/maurizio-bevilacqua-1/.

[17] House of Commons debates, December 7, 2009, Open Parliament, https://openparliament.ca/debates/2009/12/7/maurizio-bevilacqua-1/.

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‘In Your Face’ book review

Some books can take you by surprise, suddenly causing a shift in your perceptions. In Your Face: What’s Yours Saying About You? by Emisch Oghma is one such book. It’s a contemporary Western take on the ancient Chinese practice of Mien Shiang or face reading, designed to stimulate insight and just plain fun. Although traditionally it was used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as a diagnostic tool for health, it has also long been allied to a system of reading personalities based on facial structure.


‘In Your Face’ is one of those books that can change your perceptions.

According to the Mien Shiang Institute website, it’s a Taoist practice that means face (mien) reading (shiang). “In just moments, you can determine anyone’s Five Element personality type—character, behavior, even health potential—by analyzing their face.” Prominent TCM instructor Patrician McCarthy has also written a book, The Face Reader, on the topic. The Five Elements devised by ancient Taoists were wood, fire, earth, metal and water, each metaphorically representing distinct personality types, with most personalities comprised of a blend of types. Although sympathetic to TCM, I find myself struggling with this notion, which in some respects seems similar to the now discredited 19th century theory of phrenology, the measurement of skull shapes for analyzing intelligence and criminality. There’s a risk here of succumbing to emotional reasoning or metaphorical literalism. However, Mien Shiang has a 3,000-year-old pedigree, lending it additional credibility.

Oghma skips the Five Elements, focusing instead on instructing readers how to recognize and read the features that compose a face. That alone is thought-provoking, since few of us consciously consider these various elements in our daily interactions. And given that he is not a TCM practitioner, he wisely sticks to using Mien Shiang as a means of prompting self-reflection in readers or helping them better understand other personality types. “This book will help you interpret a person’s character and emotional history—and life potential—simply by looking carefully at the shape, features and expressions of their face.”

I must confess I had an urge to jump up and go to a mirror as I was reading In Your Face, having never given much thought before to the various components of my face. Although I found it a little difficult to analyze what, for example, are truly “dragon eyes” or “peacock” or “tiger” eyes, with practice this likely would become more second nature. I have a harder time with categorical statements such as a person with “chicken eyes” having “ulterior motives in any encounters.” To his credit, Oghma provides a qualifying statement: “Please keep in mind that face reading is not an exact science, nor a guaranteed accurate revelation of past emotional experiences. It’s best not to be too serious about Siang Mien (sic)—have fun and laugh.”


‘In Your Face’ author Emisch Oghma

But there’s a subtext to this story. Oghma is the victim of a brain injury sustained from a fall from a ladder in 2003. An artist and former gallery owner, the accident left him with the rare diagnosis of agnosia, the inability to recognize and identify objects or persons. Prior to this life-altering event, Oghma prided himself in never forgetting a face. “I could meet a hundred people at a show opening and would remember every one, no problem.” So the somewhat hidden story here is his gradual recovery from agnosia by learning and applying Mien Shiang. From that perspective this is a personal triumph for the author. “By being more observant, caring and interested in individual’s faces,” notes the About the Author section, “Emisch’s agnosia has steadily improved.” It’s also testament to our growing awareness and medical knowledge of the serious implications of head injuries, from something as simple as a soccer head-butt to a fall off a ladder. It’s about time we learned that if people were beaten about the head and face as they are routinely depicted in movies and TV, they’d risk—at best, permanent brain damage; at worst, death from cranial hemorrhaging.

The book is beautifully designed, featuring on the cover one of Oghma’s own mask creations laminated in gold foil, with good use of ‘white space’ on the pages, easily readable fonts, and a writing style that’s uncluttered, friendly and accessible. Whatever your views on Mien Shiang, this book will open up and possibly even change your perceptions, something few books can claim to do.

Full disclosure: I have personally known Emisch Oghma for about 20 years but am not profiting in any way from this review.

Posted in Arts & Culture, book reviews, Books | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

House of Commons passes apology motion for British Home Children

Barnardo boy ploughing 1900

Long hours of drudgery: From the image on the 2010 Canada Post stamp. Image: Library and Archives Canada

It happened so quickly most Members of Parliament were barely aware of it. On February 15 a Private Member’s motion brought forward by Bloc Québécois MP Luc Thériault was passed. The motion calls for the House of Commons to apologize to the families of the British Home Children brought to Canada to work as indentured labourers on Canadian farms during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The text of the motion reads:

“That the House recognize the injustice, abuse and suffering endured by the British Home Children as well as the efforts, participation and contribution of these children and their descendants within our communities; and offer its sincere apology to the former British Home Children who are still living and to the descendants of these 100,000 individuals who were shipped from Great Britain to Canada between 1869 and 1948, and torn from their families to serve mainly as cheap labour once they arrived in Canada.”

Fairbridge boys at Prince of Wales

First group of Fairbridge boys at the Prince of Wales Farm School, Duncan, BC, 1936. Note how young some of the boys are. Photo courtesy Ron Smith / Fairbridge Chapel Society

The manner in which the motion was so suddenly adopted speaks to the often-convoluted political process on Parliament Hill. Working with former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, Thériault was able to do something of an end-run around the usual process for getting Private Member’s legislation passed. By gaining the support of the four House parties, the motion received unanimous assent and passed quickly in the House. Thériault had been lobbied by Sandra Joyce, who formed the advocacy group British Home Child Group International, and has been an ardent supporter and worker for the apology cause. The four party MPs who agreed to the motion were Judy Sgro, Liberal (Humber River-Black Creek); Mark Strahl, Conservative (Chilliwack-Hope); Jenny Kwan, NDP (Vancouver East); and Elizabeth May, Green (Saanich-Gulf Islands).


‘Laying the Children’s Ghosts’ cover. Courtesy Hagios Press.

The apology motion is the result of years of educating the public about the much-neglected history of the British Home Children in Canada. Both Sandra Joyce and Lori Oschefski, CEO of the British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association, have been circulating apology petitions for several years now. While Alex Atamanenko was MP (NDP)[1] for the BC Southern Interior riding in which I live, he contacted me after reading my book, Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest, about drafting an apology motion. Although the resulting motion M-568 was brought forward in the House by Atamanenko, it failed to gain any traction with the Conservative dominated government under Prime Minister Harper. Indeed, while Jason Kenney held the post of Minister for Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism in the Harper cabinet, he was quoted as saying: “Canadians don’t expect the government to apologize for every sad event in our history.”[2] Yet this sentiment apparently didn’t apply to PM Harper’s official apology to the former inmates of Native residential schools. That long-awaited apology was issued on June 11, 2008.[3]

When Atamanenko retired, the riding had been re-drawn, bringing into it two vastly different regions of BC—the West Kootenay and South Okanagan. The new riding, South Okanagan-West Kootenay, was probably an attempt to skew the vote toward a Conservative victory. It failed. NDP candidate Richard Cannings was easily elected for the riding in the 2015 federal election. One of his first actions upon taking office was to contact me about re-presenting the motion, now designated M-51. It was presented by Cannings in the House along with two other Private Member’s motions on May 5, 2016.[4]

Gladys Martin

Gladys Martin was among the 100,000 British Home Children sent to Canada from Britain. Photo courtesy Irene Campbell

It remains to be seen whether the vote will lead to an official Government apology with full public ceremony. Although my understanding of Parliamentary procedure is weak, from what I’ve been told by Cannings, an apology in the House doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as an official federal Government apology. To that end, Oschefsky and I are working to press the Government for a formal official apology ceremony with BHC families invited as special guests. Cannings contacted me by phone from Parliament Hill today to tell me that he’d managed to make the request in Question Period. We await the response of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, which so far has shown great sensitivity in matters of social justice. Within a month of being elected he was pressing Pope Francis for a Catholic apology to the First Nations people forced to endure residential schools run by the church.[5] This was followed in May 2016 with an apology for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident, in which “hundreds of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu passengers were denied entry to Canada and forced to return to an uncertain and ultimately violent fate in India.”[6]

There’s plenty of precedent for public apology ceremonies for the British Home Children in the official apologies offered by the British and Australian governments. When former Australian PM Kevin Rudd apologized on November 16, 2009, BHC families were invited to Parliament in Canberra, where he addressed them all from the platform in an hour-long ceremony.[7] It was very moving; in video footage you can see tears in the eyes of many faces.[8] Australian child migrants suffered disproportionately from sexual and physical abuse. Unlike Canadian child migrants, the Australians were mostly kept in institutions run by the Christian Brothers, a Catholic sect. They were brutally exploited for their labour, building roads, schools and other infrastructure.

Joe Harwood young 1

For young men like Joe Harwood, Barnardo’s offer of a better life in Canada proved to be true. A typical photo taken upon entry at a Barnardo’s Home in England. Courtesy Bev Harwood.

Notably, PM Rudd did not limit his apology to sexual or physical abuse, but noted “the emotional starvation, the cold absence of love, tenderness and care.” He spoke of the “absolute tragedy of childhoods lost, childhoods spent instead in austere and institutional places, where names were replaced by numbers, spontaneous play by regimented routine, the joy of learning by the repetitive drudgery of menial work. And let us resolve today that this apology becomes a turning point in our national story… to do all in our power to never allow this to happen again.”

When former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made his government’s official apology on February 24, 2010, Canadian and Australian BHCs were invited to London for a ceremony where the apology was given.[9] “Sixty survivors were flown to London so they could listen to the statement in person. Conservative leader David Cameron said the programme had been operated by all political parties and Mr. Brown’s apology was on behalf of ‘all of us,’” noted the BBC report. “The Child Migrant Trust said the significance of the apology was ‘immense.’ Director Margaret Humphreys said: ‘It gives them [the migrants] the recognition they have sought for so long—and, sadly, that so many have not lived to witness.’ …Until now, no British prime minister has ever delivered an official apology, despite repeated demands from victims’ groups.”[10]


First group of girls at Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School in Duncan, BC. Courtesy Ron Smith / Fairbridge Chapel Society

In my book I interviewed Patricia Skidmore, who was there with her mother Marjorie, who had been sent to Canada with Fairbridge Farm Schools in the 1940s.[11] Unfortunately PM Brown focused mostly on the Australian child emigrants, who were a fairly small number (7,000) compared to the 100,000 Canadian BHCs—some say as many as 120,000. There were federal government subsidies paid to the emigration agencies to bring the children here and our immigration officials worked closely with them. Sadly, Marjorie Skidmore did not live to hear of the apology motion just passed in Canadian Parliament. Skidmore died earlier this month.[12]

Ivy &amp; Art 2

The author with Ivy Sucee at the George St. United Church in Peterborough. Ivy has been a tireless advocate for BHC families. Photo by Anne Champagne

In a sense it’s too bad Cannings’ motion wasn’t the one that was passed, since it was drafted to carefully include three essential points along with the call for an apology: that the federal Government should, “(b) express its gratitude and appreciation to the families whose ancestors were responsible for building up Canada’s agricultural industry at a critical early point in its development; (c) assist in a coordinated effort with survivors and descendants to track and record their genealogies and ensure that reunification with lost family members is made possible; and (d) take steps to ensure that all Canadians are informed about this important period of history in a way that makes certain it is never forgotten by present or future generations.”[13]

Art &amp; Lori Oschefsky 2

The author and Lori Oschefski in Peterborough. Lori has been a strong advocate for an official apology. Photo Anne Champagne

During my tour of Canada to promote Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest, I met BHC descendants at every reading. Many of them told me they’d learned nothing of their own family history until middle age or later, either from their own parents or from their public schooling. This pattern was typical in my research for the book. I met two young women working toward their master’s degrees in Canadian Studies and only one of them had heard of the British Home Children, and only briefly at that. This is at a university level of education! It would be like skipping completely over the chapter on the Riel Rebellion, or the Plains of Abraham. So clause D of our motion would have held the Government to account to remedy that huge oversight in the teaching of our nation’s history. But BHC advocates are nothing if not determined, so we may yet see integration of the topic into our school curriculum.

By no means is the call for an apology unanimous among BHC families; many are quite against it. Unlike the Australian experience, which was almost universally negative, many Canadian farm families treated their child migrants well, though very few were ever adopted. It’s important to note, however, that none of the Canadian initiatives have called for financial restitution. Atamanenko and Cannings’ motion merely calls for government assistance retrieving family records.

What matters, ultimately, is that this is a triumph for BHC families who felt that their ancestors were badly treated, neglected or abused. Everyone who has had a hand in the apology motion in whatever form deserves congratulations for a sense of civic duty that goes above and beyond the call.

NOTE: If you wish to support an official apology ceremony, please sign this petition: https://www.change.org/p/open-letter-to-the-right-honourable-prime-minister-trudeau

[1] Parliamentary biography: http://www.lop.parl.gc.ca/ParlInfo/Files/Parliamentarian.aspx?Item=d89e2700-537a-48d1-96f2-c55ef4f7caf1&Language=E&Section=ALL

[2] Sean Arthur Joyce, Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest: Canada’s Home Children in the West, Hagios Press, 2014, p. 49; “Canada doesn’t plan child migrant apology,” CBC News, Nov. 16, 2009, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/canada-doesn-t-plan-child-migrant-apology-1.826140

[3] Official text of apology: http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100015644/1100100015649

[4] Official website of Richard Cannings, MP: http://richardcannings.ndp.ca/cannings-tables-first-pieces-of-private-members-legislation

[5] “Justin Trudeau says he’ll engage Pope on apology for residential schools,” CBC News, December 16, 2015, http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/aboriginal-residential-schools-trudeau-meeting-1.3367026

[6] “Justin Trudeau apologizes in House for 1914 Komagata Maru incident,” CBC News, May 18, 2016, http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/komagata-maru-live-apology-1.3587827

[7] “Australian apology to British child migrants: speech in full,” The Telegraph, November 16, 2009, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/australiaandthepacific/australia/6578427/Australian-apology-to-British-child-migrants-speech-in-full.html

[8] “Kevin Rudd’s apology to the ‘Forgotten Australians,’ YouTube excerpt, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3znXsldzMRo

[9] “Gordon Brown apologizes to child migrants sent abroad,” BBC News, February 24, 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8531664.stm; Video of apology: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4MEXAdmEmlM

[10] “Gordon Brown apologizes to child migrants sent abroad,” BBC News, February 24, 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8531664.stm

[11] Sean Arthur Joyce, Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest: Canada’s Home Children in the West, Hagios Press, 2014, pp. 48, 266, 269, 273;

[12] “Remembering Marjorie Skidmore,” by Patricia Skidmore, February 13, 2017, https://www.dundurn.com/news/Remembering-Marjorie-Skidmore

[13] Text of Motion M-568, http://www.parl.gc.ca/Parliamentarians/en/members/Alex-Atamanenko(30903)/Motions

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Caroline Woodward re-releases Alaska Highway Two-Step

It’s not often these days a novel gets a second chance at life. Author Caroline Woodward’s first novel, Alaska Highway Two-Step, will get just that, with a new edition being released this month by Harbour Publishing.

Woodward’s novel tells the story of a freelance journalist, a young woman living in the Kootenays, who accepts an assignment to write a series of articles about life along the Alaska Highway. To those of us who know Caroline it’s clear her main character, Mercy Brown, is based at least partly on her own personality. But with a twist: Brown has the uncanny gift of precognition, the ability to foresee real life events in dreams. The novel weaves three narrative strands into the plot: Brown’s road trip north, her disturbing premonitions, and excerpts from journals she inherited from a deceased aunt – a ballet dancer and choreographer in the early decades of the 20th century. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of the lives of two different generations of professional women. Expect to be surprised: this story focuses more on grain and texture than on following the plot points of a typical mystery novel. Caroline agreed to be interviewed about the new edition of her novel.


The beautiful new cover for Alaska Highway Two-Step from Harbour Publishing.

Is the new edition substantially different than the original novel? Did you decide to do any rewriting or major editing? If so, why? It is relatively unchanged except for a few deft nips and tucks in the main character’s sea and road journey. A good part of the road trip takes place on the Alaska Highway, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2017. The most significant change I made was to rename the ill-fated Queen of the North ferry. In my book it is now the Queen of Hartley Bay, to honour the First Nations villagers who got into their large and small fishing boats and did a Dunkirk flotilla style of rescue of all but two of the passengers and crew when it sank in the middle of the night. They deserved to have a B.C. ferry named in their honour and one of the great things about writing fiction is that I get to make it so.

I don’t recall the book being promoted as a mystery when it originally came out in 1993. What genre description best fits the book for you? It is indeed a mystery novel for adults and was nominated by the Crime Writers of Canada for the Arthur Ellis (Canada’s last hangman) Best First Mystery Novel Award. Margaret Cannon, who still writes a weekly mystery reviews column for the Globe & Mail and does regular broadcasts for CBC Radio, picked it for the Globe & Mail Editor’s Pick of Top 100 Books in 1993. I was also invited to the 1994 Bouchercon International Mystery Convention in Seattle in 1994 to be part of a panel and to give a reading. It’s just not a typical blood and gore formula murder mystery.

How much of the novel is based on your own experience? We know you are a northern BC gal and have family ties to the Peace River region so how did that inform the writing of the novel? Absolutely none of this novel is based on my own experience except for the idyllic cottage at Five Mile on Kootenay Lake and my dear, departed dog, Sadie Brown whose ashes are now in an urn beneath my writing desk. Certainly my upbringing in the north Peace region, going to school and living in a dormitory for ‘bush kids’ in Fort St. John and later, as an adult, working with First Nations teens informs this novel. The havoc wreaked on the remote village of Fort Ware when Williston Lake, created by the first dam on the Peace River in the 1960s, flooded much of their village and other eyewitness accounts of the drowning of wild animals and nesting birds, and the suicides of trappers and others who lived in the flooded valley are real events and I have included some of them. I invented the Canadian Bureau of Premonitions, as I explain in the Foreword, and made my main character a reluctant psychic. I incorporated the practice of lucid, or more like focused, dreaming, before a crucial hunting trip and other life challenges, including dying, as practiced by people regarded as prophets among the Dane-Zaa people in the Peace and studied by anthropologist Dr. Robin Ridington, author of at least three major books on this subject, his life’s work.


Caroline Woodward

Why did you include the subplot of the aunt who was a dancer? When I had a precious full month with a studio at Banff while writing the first version of Alaska Highway Two-Step back in 1992, I discovered a book by American dancer Ruth St. Denis, a contemporary of Isadora Duncan and I wondered who might an unknown Canadian choreographer and dancer be when audiences for classical ballets were shocked by modern dancers in bare feet and others bringing monkeys and elephants onto the stage, rather like forerunners to Cirque de Soleil. That’s how Ginger Brown came to life and so I had great fun writing her ‘diaries’ and eventually I had to send her up to entertain the troops building the Alaska Highway. Ditto for dreaming up a way to stop the environmental and financial boondoggle that is the Site C Dam, which we with Peace River roots have had to fight against four separate times over the last 50 years.

If there’s a novelist whose work you most admire, who would it be? (Can be more than one of course!) And why? Are there ways you find yourself absorbing that (or those) novelist’s techniques? I admire, and read, so many novelists that I honestly cannot pick just one so a random off-the-top list would include Louise Erdrich, Michael Ondaatje, Anne DeGrace, Bodil Bredsdorff, Patrick DeWitt and Anthony Doerr. But Paulette Jiles came to mind immediately, author of novels like Enemy Women, The Colour of Lightning, Lighthouse Island and the most recent gem, News of the World, a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in 2016. Paulette’s advice to me early in my career, which I freely pass on to students and writer friends wherever I go, was: Write how you talk. Do not write like a Victorian governess unless you are one. I interpreted this further to mean: listen well to how other people talk. Absorb their rhythms and hesitations, their choice of vocabulary, the words they say and their silences.

What method did you develop to achieve this realism of voice in your stories? Nearly ten years before I met Paulette at David Thompson University Centre in Nelson where I earned a diploma in Creative Writing, I earned my B.A. and Teacher’s Certificate at UBC. For several fourth year courses, I began tape-recording pioneers in the Peace River country: a Red Cross Outpost Hospital nurse, river freighter, immigrant farmers, radio operator in Watson Lake, school teachers, war brides on homesteads and small town radio founders. These tapes are now held in the Royal BC Museum in Victoria and in the North Peace Museum in Fort St. John but they resonated with me when I did the recordings, older people sharing some of the most profound moments of their lives with me and I heard some of those voices when I wrote poetry and again when I heard Paulette’s sage advice. So don’t imitate other writers. Read them to love their stories, their voices, but learn to write in your own authentic voice. It also helps me to have worked in theatre and to have written for radio and stage pieces as that’s all about voice, about someone on a stage or a disembodied voice from the radio or from within a book, a voice calling out to you all by yourself, late at night saying, get comfy, I have a really good story I have to tell you.

Alaska Highway Two-Step will be available through all the usual outlets.

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Thornetta Davis: A New Blues Classic

From the first bar of When My Sister Sings the Blues, with its solitary slide guitar softly moaning to the spoken word homage of Felicia Davis, this is one album that knocks it out of the park. Thornetta herself steps up quickly on I Gotta Sang the Blues, in a duet with The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Kim Wilson, who underpins the song with a smokin’ blues harp that grabs you by the collar and won’t let go. This track is also a statement of her passion for the blues, something consistently evident on this outstanding album.


Davis’s new album is a New Blues instant classic, not to be missed for blues fans.

In her liner notes, Davis says it took her 20 years to put this labour of love together, only her second studio album. You don’t get much more dedicated than that, and it’s great to see artists like Davis and Lisa Biales producing work that is more about passion than just a tawdry urge for fame. Far too many celebrities these days are famous for being famous, not for the quality of their work. They should sit at the feet of Lisa and Thornetta for a few lessons in authenticity. There’s a world of difference between Just Your Next Album and a Labour of Love.

That Don’t Appease Me keeps the pace brisk with a great anchoring guitar riff by Brett Lucas that lets Davis hit the ground running. It’s a delicious groove and the unprocessed samples of trash talk at the end add a nice modern touch. Set Me Free follows with Davis supported by powerhouse backup vocals with a gospel edge and featuring the Larry McCray Band. (Am I) Just a Shadow slows things down to give us a chance to swing softly with a partner. Although in the classic tradition of the Bad Love Ballad, Davis’s lyrics project a fully empowered contemporary woman, seeking a partner who sees her as a complete person, not just a sexual partner or shallow stereotype. This is a deep touchstone in the blues—music as a vehicle for social commentary and at times even satire, going back to the earliest field chants singing in code about ‘the man.’

I Need a Whole Lot of Lovin’ to Satisfy Me picks up the pace again, with Davis fully into Blues Mama voice and a catchy chorus once again supported by great backing vocals. I’m amazed she gets away with the line: “If you ain’t packin’, baby, then you better leave,” but then, this is the 21st century. Men in the blues have been writing double entendre lyrics about feminine sexual attributes for ages already.

1399509319_imageI Believe (Everything Gonna Be Alright) is probably my favourite song on the album. I’m a sucker for a great electric slide guitar, and Brett Lucas once again delivers with pitch perfect control and menacing intensity. Lucas could give Clapton a run for his money on this one. Davis’s lyrics are as thoughtfully composed as ever, providing a message of hope in dark times. Davis is an astute enough producer to know when she’s found a good thang, so Lucas appears throughout the album. On Sister Friends Indeed his slide guitar work sets up a swingin’ groove with another catchy chorus and a Southern Baptist vocal and handclaps breakdown at the end. Get Up and Dance Away Your Blues gives us some Chicago blues with a tastefully employed horn line that does for us just what its title says. As John Latini sings on his album, the great irony is that The Blues Just Makes Me Feel Good.

I could go on, track by track, but let’s just say there isn’t a bummer song on the album. The media kit I received compares Davis to just about every major blues diva who’s ever graced a microphone. “Has the timbre like Sarah Vaughan.” “Belts the blues like Bessie Smith.” “Has the power of Big Mama Thornton.” “Touches you in your soul like Aretha Franklin.” While this may be just a little bit overstated, it’s fair to say that Davis has excellent range, control and power in her voice. She moves seamlessly from a slow dance groove to a fast shuffle, always with a great sense of articulated passion. Clearly she’s one of the best female blues vocalists working today, dubbed Detroit’s ‘Queen of the Blues’ in 2015.

For a first-time producer, Davis has an uncanny sense of how to make all the elements work—bits of soul, Chicago blues, Delta slide, blues harp, Hammond organ, gospel… all skillfully woven together to create the quintessential blues album. All too often, indie productions run aground on the rocks of inexperienced producers or recording technicians, resulting in songs not fully realized or recordings that fail to snap to life, or worse—are buried in sludge. Not so on Honest Woman. The mix here by Brian Roscoe White is beautiful—the definition of every instrument clear but not annoyingly crisp (a common fault of digital recordings), the midrange and bass tones well balanced with the highs. The result is a naturalistic listening experience not unlike sitting in the audience at a well-produced show.

Honest Woman gets 4.5 out of 5 stars from me, with the 5-star rating reserved for the original classic albums of the blues canon. Even the graphic design for the album is first-rate. Superb!


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