Early in 1943, the military planners in London, England, coped with the ebb and flow of the Second World War, but they did so secretly. Squirrelled away in his tiny office at the British War Office, an experienced Canadian-born artillery officer grappled with a logistics problem about an upcoming military operation. But the stress proved overwhelming for hm. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t focus. To switch his mind off before bed, he tried reading detective stories. Then, he tried something completely different.
“I set up a fly-tying table,” Charles Falkland Loewen wrote in his memoirs, “and before going to bed sat down to tie a fly or two. I found that this absorbed one’s complete attention … and really unbuttoned my mind from current problems.”
This week, we have witnessed two sides of the coming Donald Trump administration and its method of information distribution.
On Monday, the president-elect invited former opponents, friends seeking roles in his transition team and even TV executives to his New York White House, the Trump Tower in Manhattan. Nobody was allowed to report on the meetings. Everything, by agreement with Trump, was off the record.
The next day, Tuesday, the president-elect travelled across town to the offices of the New York Times, tweeting, “I have great respect for the New York Times. I have tremendous respect…”
It was at a speaking engagement. I was about to address the University Women’s Club of North York the other night. I had prepared my opening remarks and was just waiting to be introduced. That’s when a stranger approached and asked about my work as a writer. I responded briefly and asked about her career.
“I’ve just begun my first semester at university,” she said, “in engineering.”
“A challenge?” I asked.
“Not so far,” she said and smiled. “I hope it’ll be the right thing for me.”
The man sat at the back of the audience area through most of my presentation. I spoke, as I usually do in those situations, walking among those in the audience, in this case 30 people seated at about eight tables. My topic was the Battle at Vimy Ridge coming up to the 100th anniversary next year. And I was speaking at a small Ontario fair last weekend. I could see the man was reacting to what I had to say. He frowned a lot and when I’d finished he put up his hand.
“Is it true that all the French-Canadian troops threw their rifles overboard on the way over to France?” he asked.
I paused a second, wondering where he was going with the question. I didn’t want to think there was prejudice involved. “No. I don’t think that’s true, since one of the key regiments at Vimy was the Royal 22nd from Quebec.”
That morning, about three and a half weeks ago, this political candidate was on the firing line. Two CTV journalists had fashioned their feature interview with him based on some hard-hitting questions. Then, the TV journalists invited questions from those in the audience. Several of my journalism students, invited to the studio, got their chance to ask questions. And the politician answered them thoughtfully. Then, with the broadcast over, the politician headed for his tour bus to dash to his next event. As we were leaving the studio, my students passed by the candidate’s tour bus.
“Hold it there,” I said to my students, suggesting they pose in front of the logo on the bus. I raised my cell phone to snap the picture, when…
“Wait a second,” the young politician shouted from just outside camera range. “Let me join you,” and he jumped into the shot next to the student journalists and thanked them for being part of a political selfie.
Not so long ago, the talk in our oldtimers’ hockey dressing room turned to the usual grousing. The Leafs likely won’t make the playoffs, one guy moaned. Somebody else complained that township roads weren’t being ploughed quickly or thoroughly enough this winter. Then, Pearson airport became the target. In the recent ice storm, weren’t the delays horrendous? Wasn’t it criminal that travellers were forced to remain on the tarmac for hours?
And, just for good measure, aren’t those sunshine destination airfares outrageous? And I thought about something one of our daughters had said, when I complained about a similar problem, delay or cost.
“It’s a First World problem, Dad,” she pointed out quietly.
“Yes, but…” and I stopped myself. She was absolutely right.
This week, I caught both the federal budget unveiling in the House of Commons and the political and public response. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced that he would run the country’s business for about $250 billion, running a $2.9 billion deficit with an additional $3 billion contingency just in case the economy goes south. He suggested he would stay the course “to weather any future global economic storms,” in his speech in the
Commons. I’m sure Flaherty’s done the math, but Canada’s deficit and contingency alone would cover much of the assets of many Third World countries such as Bangladesh, Congo, Liberia, Eritrea and Afghanistan combined. In other words, deficits and contingencies and economic storms are all relative.
I watched Global TV’s coverage of Opposition leader Tom Mulcair assess the budget. The NDP leader complained that there are 300,000 more Canadians looking for work than during the economic crisis of 2008; in particular, he worried that 260,000 young Canadians are still looking for work. Down the hall, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau worried the budget didn’t offer any hope of growth or a vision for the future; he scoffed that it was an electoral budget, promising to balance the books just in time for next year’s federal election.
“We’re not seeing any vision,” Trudeau scolded, but then, that’s what Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’s job is – to complain.
This week, I conducted a bit of a state-of-the-union survey among my journalism students at the college where I teach. They decried tuition fees. They wished cell phone rates weren’t so high. They hated the cafeteria food. And when I asked why some of them hadn’t arrived on time for their news reporting class, they said it was scheduled too early in the day.
It was just after 11:30 a.m. and – to some – that was an ungodly hour to be expected to perform thinking, reasoning or any other creative skills. When I informed them that I had originally intended to schedule the class for 8:30 a.m., they responded with such indignation, you’d have thought I’d insulted their family name.
“That’s ridiculous,” one of them said. “How could anybody function under those conditions?”
The reaction gave me pause. I remembered a personal experience that had profoundly affected my sense of perspective. In the summer of 2010, I travelled to Krakow, Poland. I met a guide, who had offered to assist me as I planned a subsequent trip leading a tour of Canadians through that part of Eastern Europe. I asked him if he would get me to a small town just outside Krakow, called Oświęcim, where during the Second World War, the Nazis constructed a prison (Auschwitz) and concentration camp (Birkenau) to systematically exterminate political prisoners and the Jews of Europe.
“The tour will last three hours,” the on-site guide told us at the Auschwitz interpretive centre. “And I hope you brought umbrellas.”
I hadn’t. But it didn’t matter. The rain was pouring down with such intensity and volume as we began the tour of Auschwitz prison, that most of the people in our group were drenched within the first 10 minutes of the visit. And because the content of the tour was so severe and depressing, only a handful of us remained by the time the three-hour tour had concluded.
Much of what the former prison contained haunted me. The cells in which the condemned spent their last hours depressed me for days. The photographs of the men and women tortured and killed stick in my head even now. And when I got to Birkenau and realized how many thousands of Jews the Nazis had crammed inside those former horse barns, I cried. But what stays with me most of all, was the sight inside one of the prison barns of a lone faucet and basin, the sole washing facility for hundreds and hundreds of prisoners there.
To this day, I cannot turn on a tap, brush my teeth, take a shower or pour a glass of water without flashing back to that solitary faucet and basin. I guess it’s the mental equivalent of reminding myself – anytime I complain – that mine are “are just First World problems.”
When my veteran friend Stephen Bell came home from war in 1945, he only weighed 97 pounds (when he enlisted in 1940 he’d weighed 180). In ’45, military doctors conducted a short debriefing. They didn’t ask him about his eardrums, broken during the battle at Dieppe where he was captured in August 1942. He still had shrapnel in his back and because the Nazis had shackled him while he was a POW, his wrists were arthritic.
“I was eventually placed on 100 per cent pension,” Bell told me back in the 1990s.
Stephen Bell, who died at age 85 in 2009, didn’t have much good to say about his military experience. On Aug. 19, 1942, he’d been part of the disastrous raid on Dieppe, France, where more than 3,500 Canadians became casualties. After his capture there he spent the rest of the war in POW camps in sub-human conditions.
“If it weren’t for my arthritis I would be in great shape,” Bell told me 20 years ago. He added, however, that he had “a lot to be thankful for.”
Today, he and many of his Second World War comrades would be appalled by what’s gone from bad to worse in the public service of Canadian vets. Next Monday, an Opposition motion in the House of Commons will attempt to block a money-saving measure by the federal government to close Veterans Affairs Canada offices in eight Canadian communities. The Conservative majority will defeat the motion.
Ironically, had Stephen Bell sought assistance today in his native Saskatchewan, where the Harper Conservatives plan to close the Saskatoon office, he would have had to travel nearly twice the distance from his home to seek VAC attention.
Last month, when a group of contemporary veterans arranged a meeting with Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, he arrived late, got into a shouting match and walked away from the vets who were attempting to dissuade the government from closing VAC offices in Sydney, N.S., Thunder Bay, Windsor, Corner Brook, N.L., Charlottetown, Kelowna, B.C., Brandon, Man., and Saskatoon. Fantino symbolically abandoned those he’s supposed to be serving.
During the Great War, Grace MacPherson had a confrontation with the man she was serving. A Vancouver volunteer in the Red Cross, she wanted to drive ambulances behind the front lines at the Western Front where the Canadian Expeditionary Force prepared to take Vimy Ridge in 1917. To make her case MacPherson secured an interview with the Minister of Militia at the Savoy Hotel in London, England.
“I’ve come from Canada to drive an ambulance,” she announced to Sir Sam Hughes in the meeting.
“I’ll stop any woman from going to France,” he said. “And I’ll stop you too.”
Grace MacPherson accepted his judgment and went back to work in the Red Cross office dispensing pay chits to Canadians on leave in London. But she never gave up hope to serve closer to the action. Coincidentally, conditions in France superseded Sam Hughes’ resistance to MacPherson’s idea. The war office decided that men in the ambulance corps could better serve the war effort closer to the front, so the driving jobs were re-assigned to women volunteers. Grace served a year and a half loading wounded into her ambulance, driving them to aid stations, while maintaining the ambulance’s engine and repairing its flats… all for a paltry 14 shillings a week.
“Didn’t matter,” MacPherson wrote in diary. “I was most proud of the Canadian patch I wore on my shoulder.”
Veterans are like that, I’ve discovered. They recognize the realities of their service. Even if they don’t agree with decision-making, they live up to their responsibilities. They have a high regard for punctuality. And above all they never let down their peers in the service of Canada. It’s the credo by which they live and die. Apparently, such qualities are tougher to find among those administering Veterans Affairs Canada.
By the way, a few weeks after my Dieppe vet friend Stephen Bell left the Toronto office that had discharged him with a clean bill of health in 1945, he collapsed on Bay Street. X-rays revealed that he had both pneumonia and pleurisy. He spent the next 17 months in and out of the Christie Street Veterans Hospital.
“After six months, I was called (to a Toronto army office) for a review of my health. I told them I felt fine most of the time, so my pension was reduced to 10 per cent. … It didn’t bother me that my pension was cut off. I could make it on my own.”
Most veterans – then or now – would exhibit the same kind of fortitude. They can and do suck it up. If they have to they can make it on their own. But like Stephen Bell then, veterans now need the help they’re entitled to – close by, uninterrupted, unchallenged by politicians or bureaucrats, unsullied by fiscal conservatism and its shortsighted view of Canadian values.
Sam Sniderman changed my Saturdays forever. Back in the 1960s, instead of sleeping in, savouring my coffee, wasting my morning, I high-tailed it downtown to Yonge and Dundas streets, to the store under the spinning-record sign to spend my money on vinyl. Yes, every Saturday morning I raced to take advantage of Sam’s door-crasher specials.
“The best music and the best prices,” Sam Sniderman used to say in his advertisements. But more than that, he also said, “Buy Canadian music because it’s the best.”
It didn’t take long to determine whether Canadians would be going to the polls this spring or not. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty hadn’t even begun to introduce the 2011 federal budget in the House of Commons, Tuesday afternoon, when we knew that two of the three Opposition leaders – Gilles Duceppe and Michael Ignatieff – would not support it. Only Jack Layton kept the country in suspense until the end of the budget speech. And within minutes of Flaherty’s concluding remarks, the other shoe dropped.
“Mr. Harper had an opportunity to address the needs of hard-working, middle class Canadians and families,” Layton said to CBC microphones, “and he missed that opportunity… New Democrats will not support the budget as presented.”