I stood in what seemed thunderous chaos. Horses galloped to the right of me, to the left of me. Lances appeared to whisk past my ears. The ground felt as if it were trembling beneath my feet. And I grabbed my dad’s arm, fearing if I didn’t I might topple over. Just audible above the din of the rhythmic panting of the horses and the pounding of their hooves, I could hear singing.
As I recall, it was a summer morning. It might have been around the July 1 anniversary. It didn’t matter. That whole summer of 1967 had had a birthday feeling to it. In any case, I was just rising from a rare sleep-in. But even in my half-conscious state I remember hearing a sound in the distance. It was the diesel whistle of a locomotive approaching the level crossing in Pontypool, Ont., just south of where I was rising from bed.
“Daa. Daa. Da-da,” the diesel horn announced.
“What the heck is that?” I called out to my folks. And just as quickly as I asked, I realized that it was the first four notes of “O Canada” coming from that train whistle. About 15 minutes later, when I’d arrived at the station, where coincidentally the train stopped for a visit, I discovered it was the Confederation Train.
Her name is Kayla Czaga. She’s a young Canadian poet. And last Saturday night during a gala, I attended in Winnipeg, her peers announced she’d won the annual Gerald Lampert Award… Don’t be embarrassed if you’ve never heard of her or the prize. It was awarded by the League of Canadian Poets at the first ever joint conference of the LCP and its new sister association, The Writers’ Union of Canada, of which I’m a member. In fact, she commented on the new relationship between the LCP and TWUC.
“I want to thank this big, new, strange family,” she said. And the 200 or so writers present – poets, novelists, short story writers and non-fiction writers – all laughed and applauded in appreciation.
It was a time when every man wore a hat, or as one historian described it, “silk toppers for the privileged, cloth caps for working men and straw boaters for the younger rakes.” It didn’t matter which one Canadians were wearing, 100 years ago this week, since most of them were airborne during the first week of August. Hats were in the air in celebration because Canadians had heard the news from Europe. Here’s the way the Toronto Telegram described it:
“A booming roar … rose and fell in the narrow canyon of streets,” the newspaper reported in August 1914. “It was the voice of Toronto carried away with patriotic enthusiasm. Britain had determined to give the bully of Europe a trouncing.”
In short, it was exactly a century ago that Canadians learned their nation of eight million citizens would follow Mother England into a war to end all wars against Germany. In fact, when I did some research for this column on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, I learned a great deal. I discovered, for example, that instead of reporting events surrounding the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, the archduke and duchess of Austria-Hungary on June 28, 1914, Canadian newspapers quite unabashedly fomented public opinion in support the war.
Not only that, but the papers quite literally beat the drum of war in Canadian city streets. Pierre Berton noted in his book “Marching as to War” that in Hamilton, the Spectator newspaper projected slides on the exterior walls of its downtown building pointing out the good English King and the villainous German Kaiser. In Winnipeg, demonstrations resulted and they led young men to the local military barracks to enlist. And in Quebec, where I thought nobody wanted to fight in a war to defend the King of England, La Patrie, a Montreal newspaper, editorialized this way:
“There are no longer French Canadians and English Canadians. Only one race now exists, united by the closest bonds in a common cause.”
Strange too, since it had only been 15 years since 6,000 Canadians had served with distinction (four won the Victoria Cross) in the South African War. And by 1914, statistics showed that Canada’s regular army had shrunk to only 3,000 men. Still, in 1913, a full year before the assassinations in Sarajevo, Sam Hughes, the minister of militia, had invited Canadians to bolster the country’s militia. No fewer than 60,000 men showed up at training centres across the country to become so-called “weekend soldiers,” reservists preparing for what seemed an inevitable European war. Clearly the Canadian male population was either bored or eager for a fight.
Just look at this community as proof. As I discovered when I researched my book about the First World War battle at Vimy Ridge, (thanks to files at the Uxbridge Historical Centre) local lawyer and MP Samuel Sharpe had no trouble getting Parliament to give its blessing for the formation of the 116th (Ontario County) Battalion in 1916.
And when Col. Sharpe took his message of serving King and Empire in the Great War to towns and villages across what is now Durham Region, he couldn’t keep up with the flood of enlistment. Typical was teenager Lyman Nicholls. In 1914 he’d responded to a couple of recruiting sergeants from the Mississauga Horse to become a boy soldier playing trumpet in the regimental band. But the next spring, in June 1915 while in class at Uxbridge Secondary School, he really got the bug.
“We were having a French lesson,” Nicholls said. “Our teacher went out of the classroom for a few minutes and I stood up and started for the window. I said, ‘This is our chance, fellows,’ and climbed out the window. Seven others followed me.”
At the Uxbridge post office they took medical exams, signed enlistment papers to join Col. Sharpe’s 116th and went to the quartermaster’s office to pick up boots and uniforms. And even though his parents withdrew him that night because he was underage, Nicholls joined legitimately that summer when he graduated from high school. Later that year, when Sharpe’s volunteers conducted target practice with Ross rifles on a shooting range (along what is now the Brookdale Road) and were photographed in Elgin Park during a drill demonstration, they were 1,100 strong.
As part of their formal send-off, Uxbridge residents erected arches and banners over the downtown streets with religious and patriotic slogans, including: “God bless our splendid men” and “Send them safe home again.” Except that the recruiting of young men, tossing of hats and shouting of slogans did NOT keep them safe. Of the 1,100 members of Col. Sharpe’s 116th Battalion only 160 returned alive. Sharpe himself committed suicide, it’s said, unable to face the families of his county.
The death of a generation began 100 years ago this week.
In the introduction to a book, “A Doyle Reader” by Newfoundlander Marjorie Doyle, CBC Radio host Shelagh Rogers described a get-together between the two longtime friends. Shelagh said, on this particular visit, that she presented Marjorie with a couple of ceramic coffee mugs with the title (of the show Shelagh was then hosting) “Sounds Like Canada” on them.
In accepting the gift, Rogers said Doyle immediately ran to her office, returned with a thick black Magic Marker pen and crossed out the word “Canada” and scribbled in “Newfoundland.”
“Now I can use them,” she told Rogers. “I’m stuck with what I am, who I am,” Doyle recently told a panel discussion I attended in Newfoundland. “On an island, borders are intractable.”
Back in May, The Writers’ Union of Canada gathered its executive, its administrators and several hundred of its members (myself included) in St. John’s for its annual general meeting. Traditionally, TWUC holds workshops on the first day the union meets. Marjorie Doyle appeared on the panel entitled “Writing From My Centre.” She admitted that her home province did not appear in her earliest work as a journalist for the Globe and Mail, the National Post or even on her late night CBC Radio show “That Time of the Night.”
But eventually – perhaps because she often worked away from Newfoundland, in Toronto, Montreal or on Vancouver Island – she realized how much her home island affected her.
“When I was away,” she said, “ I was very aware I wasn’t from that place.” Newfoundland shaped her taste in music, in travel and in language, so she embraced it and celebrated it. I suspect place has a lot to do with the works of many Canadian writers.
As well as Marjorie Doyle, author Wayne Johnston has always captured the political and social bloodlines of Newfoundland. The writings of Earl Birney, Dorothy Livesay, George Woodcock and P.K. Page have almost always been associated with British Columbia, just as Pierre Berton’s and Farley Mowat’s works of non-fiction are often linked to Yukon and the Northwest Territories respectively. Think of some of this country’s best fiction or poetry with Montreal as a setting and you read Mordecai Richler, Gabrielle Roy or Roch Carrier. Similarly, W.O. Mitchell, Margaret Laurence and Guy Vanderhaeghe are Canadian writers with their feet and creativity firmly planted in the Prairies.
Over the weekend I joined the 18th annual Saskatchewan Festival of Words in Moose Jaw. For a time – back in the 1970s – I lived and worked in Saskatchewan; I have enjoyed a following there and have twice presented at the festival. But a new generation of Prairie writers has emerged in recent years. They too have found their fictional characters, non-fictional stories, plot lines, settings and even their muses in what one character described as “this dry and barren landscape.”
In her adopted home, Regina, Gail Bowen has written 15 books known as “the Joanne Kilbourn mystery series.” Six of her books have been adapted to television movies; she has also written stage plays and radio dramas. Throughout, she has remained in content and in voice a Prairie writer. Nor has Bowen ever shied away from dealing with contemporary Prairie urban issues, such as the poverty, prostitution and low-rental housing in a Regina neighbourhood known as North Central.
“I always try to portray my locations accurately,” she told a writing panel about the Prairie landscape. “When I write about North Central, I write about it warts and all.”
Seated next to Bowen on the panel was celebrated crime writer Anthony Bidulka, known best for his mystery series featuring detective Russell Quant. On his website, Bidulka describes his hero as “a world-travelling, wine-swilling, wise-cracking, gay PI.” He remembered a unique moment when Quant’s origins suddenly emerged as an issue during a Q & A session in the U.S.
“This big Texan got up to the mike and began to speak,” Bidulka said. “He said, ‘I would like to know how you can write a series about a detective who is … from Saskatchewan?’” That’s when Anthony Bidulka realized how powerfully his home in Saskatoon affected his personality and writing. “We’re a fly-over province,” he added, “but I’m driven to write about Saskatchewan.”
Similarly, as I pointed out in the beginning, Marjorie Doyle is a proud Newfoundlander. She writes critically about her home. She writes passionately about her home. She has strong feelings about its past and its future. She’s even been known to profess that her island province should eventually secede from Canada and return to Dominion status (as Newfoundland was prior to its joining Confederation in 1949).
However, Marjorie is realistic enough to recognize where she is and from where she writes (at least for now).
“I’m the only member of my family born in Canada,” she said at the St. John’s writers’ conference. “The rest of my family was born in Newfoundland (before 1949). Still, I’m rooted to this place … in all I think and write.”
The man approached us with plenty of confidence. He seemed self-assured, but had an inquisitive look on his face too. He pulled out a pen and paper ready to make some notes about who we were. One of us at our booth, on Wellesley Street in Toronto, asked him the burning question of the day:
“Are you a writer?”
“Sure am, “ he said. “I’m a poet. Have been all my life.”
I had a visit with the Queen this past week. Not Elizabeth II. No one with any royal blood really. But she has certainly worn a crown, of sorts, as the best at what she does. In fact, she has won gold and silver recognition in her profession. She is a writer, a writer of one of the oldest forms of journalism and among the most actively followed sections of published newspapers – the obituary.
“Her subjects (are) the famous as well as the unknown,” said a press release promoting her most recent book. “Sandra Martin is the obit Queen of Canada.”