Category Archives: Inspirational people

Jane’s Story… The Internment of Japanese Canadians

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Jane Yoshiko Ikeda Hayes

Part One

The album is compact yet weighty, a visual archive of a Canadian history. Many of the small black and white photographs hit me like a blast of cold air, none more so than the photo of the Tashme Internment Camp. Hastily built in the interior of British Columbia, row upon row of tiny shacks stand in a bleak winter landscape. The image records a place where the freezing mountain air rendered the winters unbearable for those incarcerated there – fellow Canadians of Japanese origin. I’ve come across this same photo online and of other camps. Now, I sit across from a survivor who endured the misery of Tashme, and so much more.

The petite, elegant lady has entrusted the album – and her story – to me; I consider it an honour. White calligraphy on black, the inside inscription on the album reads, “May 13th, 1947, To Yoshiko Jane Ikeda, On Her Sixth Birthday.” 

The second photo I gaze upon on is one of Jane herself. About two years old, she’s wearing a darling white coat and dress, stitched by her mother. Standing for the camera with her older brother, it is a sweet photograph of siblings. Yet they – Canadian citizens imprisoned during World War Two and its aftermath for nothing more than being of Japanese descent – are far from their home in Vancouver.

It’s early Saturday morning as I pour green tea for Jane and myself. The first signs of autumn are visible from my office window– maples donning a plumage of crimson red, soft rain pattering on fading summer blooms. Jane had asked if we could meet early today. “As it’s a painful period to talk about, I’ll need to walk afterwards.” At 79, Jane, a retired teacher and lecturer, is an avid walker and skier.

During our two-hour conversation, we have moments of melancholy, of sadness, of utter disdain for this shameful period in Canadian history. Jane tells me from the outset, “There are a lot of strands, like the elm tree you wrote of in Kaslo, but there are two significant people who helped ‘graft’ me. Helped me strip away the past that stunted this fragile tree.”

Yet to fully appreciate Jane’s story and the common history of the some 23,000 people of Japanese heritage like her, we have to understand the stage in which these crimes against citizens, mostly Canadian born, was set. And it doesn’t begin on the eve of war, or later when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Tragically, it finds its origins long before that.

Despite Canada’s present day reputation as a nation that is welcoming to immigrants, overt racism against Asians can be traced to 1871 after British Columbia joined confederation, the point at which it became a province of Canada. Of a population of 50,000, white Canadian and European origin represented about 10,000, the remaining were mostly of Indigenous, Chinese, Indian and other Asian descent. Outnumbered and concerned about disenfranchisement, The Provincial Voters Act Amendment of 1895 stated, “No Chinaman, Japans, or Indian shall have his name placed on the Register of Voters for any Electoral District or be entitled to vote in any election.”

This also served the purpose of preventing these citizens from becoming professionals; doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc., as in order to work in these fields, one had to be on the voter list. Year by year, further Acts were passed disallowing Chinese or Japanese persons from working on railways, in mining, or at selected companies.

We know from the Indian (i.e. people of the First Nations) Act and its many manifestations of discrimination against Indigenous people, how the impacts of injustice still resonate. The Japanese, who began migrating to BC about 1877, initially worked successfully in fishing, farming, mining, and logging. In 1905 an Asian Exclusion League was formed, the building white resentment brimming over in events such as the Anti-Asian riots on Vancouver’s Powell Street. 

Despite this, by the early 1930’s many Japanese Canadians – or Nikkei – excelled in fishing and the forestry industry. They were respectful, law abiding, upstanding citizens, over 60% of whom were born in this land. Many didn’t speak Japanese and had only a connection to their ancestral roots. Yet still, the Canadian government adopted progressively more stringent tactics of disenfranchisement, more than 100 orders from 1931 onwards – such as fishing licenses revoked for no apparent reason being one of many ploys.

Jane’s own family story is initially one of success that mirrors many other families. Success built on hard work, intelligence, humility, love of family and of their country, Canada.

All these years later, with some research and the help of her two brothers, Jane has mostly pieced together the family history – their parents, like many others infused with a culture of forbearance, simply never spoke of their early experiences. 

“The only time I remember my father referring to it was when a friend asked why he wasn’t bitter. That was the price I paid. Look at my three children, he replied proudly.”

George Yoshinori Ikeda was born in 1899, raised in Vancouver and followed in his father’s profession as a fisherman. When Jane and I notice a photo of him sitting at a desk while still a young man, Jane seems pleased that perhaps at one time he might have studied.

“He married well,” Jane reveals as we gaze at her family in a 1941 photo. Her brother is two, she, just a baby in her mother’s arm. None could know the tragedies that would unfold later that year. 

“After several suitors were presented to the Okimura family, my father was accepted to marry my mother, Itsuko. Years later, I was happy to learn that her family was from the Samurai class,” she says, referring to the hereditary nobility and warrior class of medieval and early modern Japan.

From the mid 1700s, the Okimura ancestry includes a samurai warrior. He would have commanded 10 to 15 foot soldiers and been able to read and write, even take on a surname. Historically, as with some cultures, common folk were known by their occupations. Okimura means, towards the sea, perhaps signifying that the Samurai had chosen to live close by the shore.

All those years later, at the turn of the century, Mataichi Okimura emigrated to Canada where his daughter would marry George, a man who also felt at home on the sea.

“My mother had been born here, but was sent back to Japan to care for her grandmother. Her English was always poor,” Jane confides, “even though she returned to Canada at 16 and helped start a family business as a seamstress. She married my father and, as was common at the time, she was taught to self-sacrifice, to obey her husband and her sons. Everything she did was for us. And reflection was not in her lexicon.”

“My parents were a good team,” Jane continues with emotion. “At the time of my birth they owned several fishing boats, three houses and seventeen lots in Steveston outside of Vancouver. We were well-to-do. Yet later when we had absolutely nothing, we always had love.”

The Ikeda’s descent into poverty through their loss of freedom, the stripping of their liberties, and eventual incarceration, began as it did for the majority of Canadians of Japanese ancestry and for the newly arrived Japanese on the Pacific Coast. As the war entered its second year, racial discrimination, partly driven by the commercial success of the Nikkei, entered the next phase.

“It was the kind of resentment that slumbers, then awakens,” one assistant to then Prime Minister Mackenzie King admitted. King began to ‘soft-peddle’ racial policies, culminating in the use of the War Measures Act by Decree. The government of British Columbia also began a campaign to rid their province of Nikkei. When Pearl Harbour was bombed by Japanese forces on Dec. 7th1941, it appears that some commentators of the time reflected that ‘it seemed heaven-sent’. As Canadians, we would perhaps prefer to believe that the government made rash decisions as they reacted in haste, that perhaps they didn’t realize the injustice and suffering their policies would cause. Tragically, the response was planned and carried out with precision… all perfectly legal in the eyes of the law at the time.

Canada and her allies were now at war with Japan, and even as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police counselled the government that the Nikkei were peaceful and posed no threat, the expulsion campaign began. Even though 63% of the Nikkei were Canadian born, fanned by sensationalist press and widespread racism, almost 1200 fishing boats were impounded. Japanese newspapers and businesses were shuttered. 

Prime Minister Mackenzie King issued his Orders-in-Council under the War Measures Act on Feb. 24, 1942, ‘to remove all persons of Japanese origin from the Pacific Coast.’ A slogan of the time, perpetrated by MP Ian Mackenzie in British Columbia, demanded ‘No Japs from the Rockies to the sea,’. All Japanese Canadians were required to register. And then, the men were the first to go.

Part Two

Jane was a small baby when her father was removed from his home and business. Like many other men, George was designated to spend his captivity in hard labour.  He was sent to work on a road crew, while others were packed off to farms or railways. In deplorable living conditions, George helped construct – with only hand tools – the Hope to Princeton highway, now part of Highway 3. Any man who begged to stay with his family or resisted these enforced labour conditions, was sent to a POW camp on the other side of the country – a large orange target on the back of his work clothes. “Where would we have escaped to?” quipped one survivor.

Jane’s eyes, and mine, fill with tears when she tells me that everything they owned was then appropriated by the government… the houses, boats, the plots of land. I can only imagine the anguish and uncertainty of signing the document that stated all would be returned after the war, or so they were promised; law abiding citizens still trusted their government. And yet, that was only the beginning.

Meanwhile, the BC Security Commission had prepared large exhibition buildings at Hastings Park for a temporary clearing site. With many given only 24 hours to pack, Itsuko was also given the order to take only what she could carry, a pair of suitcases, her two children, and join the thousands being herded into Hastings. Indeed, it had been a cattle and horse barn; the stench and filth still fresh in survivors memories all these years later. Lack of water or proper washroom facilities, poor food, the spread of disease, families separated… for any mother, the thought of young children in that environment is unimaginable. Without knowing their fate, confinement lasted for months. And on top of this they carried the burden of not knowing the conditions their husbands were facing, or even knowing whether they were alive. This was known as the First Uprooting.

By September of 1942, the peak of those simultaneously interned at Hastings is almost 4000, though 8000 were processed in total. Meanwhile, the federal and provincial  governments had deemed all Nikkei a national security threat and conjured an idea for all of those abandoned mining ghost towns in the Kootenay region of BC. Soon trains trundled the detainees to mountain towns like Kaslo, Slocan, Lemon Creek, New Denver, Greenwood, Sandon. Others were offered the option of back-breaking working on sugar beet farms in Alberta and Manitoba where they were permitted to keep their family intact. 

Itsuko and her two children were forcibly removed to a prison camp outside of Hope BC. Many women and children initially lived in tents while the shacks were hastily built – each 14 by 28 ft which two families shared. With her husband already exiled to a road camp, the young mother would find a way to survive the so-called Tashme camp. “The conditions were brutal,” Jane’s brother Edward is quoted as saying. He is the older brother in the photo and recalls his mother receiving a jar at regular intervals, filled with the paltry wages his father earned for building BC’s Highway 3. 

It is at this point in our conversation that I find myself truly at a loss for words and struggling to comprehend. I learn that with their bank accounts frozen by the government, the captive Nikkei were forced to pay for their own food, blankets, clothing and even for building supplies to make some semblance of comfort out of the shacks they had been forced to live in.

“Even hardened criminals don’t have to pay for their own imprisonment,” I read time and time again from camp survivors.

Like Itsuko, Nikkei women had no choice but to become the mainstay of their families. If they were fortunate, their meagre diet was supplemented by food items gleaned from other sources. “My mother never complained,” Edward is quoted as saying. “She was a capable woman. She sewed my pants, shirts, and knitted.” Itsuko, Jane and Edward were eventually moved from Tashme to the New Denver camp.

I visited the New Denver camp where the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre pays homage to the internees. Nestled in the soaring, soulful Selkirk mountains, the concentration camp comprised some 300 wood shacks built and occupied by the internees from 1942 to 1949. Having stood almost reverently in one of the family-shared shacks, I could envision only too well the harsh conditions and the years of suffering. There had been a school, a temple, sport teams, a Japanese garden, and an ofuro – a communal bathhouse. Yet the artefacts are haunting and telling. On display are items from home and of their life of freedom, mixed amongst the more practical and prosaic. As with other places of hardship I’ve visited, I am reminded of the deep resources a woman draws upon for the survival of her family.

I ask Jane if she has visited the Nikkei Centre, or the Japanese Canadian Museum at the former Langham Hotel in Kaslo, another poignant site dedicated to ensuring that this episode of Canadian history is not forgotten. Approximately 1100 Canadians were imprisoned in the village of Kaslo of whom the museum points out that they ‘turned frustration and sorrow into new and honourable lives.’

“I won’t go,” she says emphatically. “I’m not introspective. I never look backwards.”

This is in fact the strength of the Nikkei, to move forward with dignity and resolve. Even as the government breached its promise by permanently appropriating property and subsequently selling it at rock-bottom prices, they persevered and found a way forward.

In 1945, Jane’s family was reunited, then displaced to Picture Butte, Alberta. Although the war had ended, unlike the US government, neither property, nor rights (including the right to return to the Pacific coast) were restored to Japanese Canadians. 

The Canadian government now gave the internees two options. Move east, at least 100 miles inland from the coastline of BC, or ‘repatriate’ to Japan. Many of course had never been to Japan, didn’t speak the language, nor had any desire to go to a land they didn’t consider to be their own. And so, compounding the tragedy of the past four years, with many now destitute, having lost their businesses and homes, the Nikkei now scattered themselves across Canada to start again. Some 4000 took the government’s offer and boarded a ship to a faraway, war-torn land called Japan. Of those who took that option, many found themselves in the limbo of being shunned first in one place and then in another.

Jane shows me a photo of the shack the Ikeda the family lived in once they moved to the prairies of Alberta. “More like a kind of chicken-coop,” she says. Then about five, Jane has some recollections of this time. “It’s not pleasant, but I remember how everything froze-up in the outhouse, everything…” 

There are some seemingly carefree images from this time. Jane and friends in summer dresses squinting into the sunshine, and bundled up in snowsuits in the winter. Other family members also move to the small farming community where Jane’s father and an uncle become builders. It is here that another brother is born.

In April of 1949, all restrictions on Japanese Canadians are finally revoked. In 1951, the Ikeda family returns to Vancouver, to no properties or jobs, to start again. The family takes temporary lodging at a hotel, then a boarding house until the family buys a house on Killarney Street. Photos of it boast profuse cherry and apple trees, smiling faces as life moves on.

Yet I’m saddened to hear Jane tell me, “It was a little shack of a house. A lean-to was built on the side for me, damp and covered with black mold.” I ask how her mother coped, whether they spoke of the hardships. “Never, not once,” she tells me. It’s here that Jane reminds me, ‘we were poor, but wealthy with love.”

George Yoshinori Ikeda, initially provided for his family as a handyman and gardener, then as a janitor at the less than salubrious Niagara Hotel. He retired at the age of 83.

Itsuko returned to dress making, working in a shop on Alma Street, often stitching into the evenings at her own kitchen table.

“She stitched beautiful wedding gowns, but I don’t think she was paid well enough. Even now, I can see the elegant white fabrics against the humble background. We never ate at the kitchen table, it was always draped in white.”

Itsuko Okimura Ikeda, resourceful, brave and proud as any Samurai warrior, died at the age of 96.

As I pour the last of the tea, Jane tells me that, besides the love of her parents, she has had two ‘graftings’ that have helped her become who she is today. “I stripped away things that hurt me, I created a cocoon that stunted my fragile tree… forever stunted, but over-reaching.”

“The first graft was encouraged by Ms. Elliott, my high school councillor. She told me I had the intellect to go to university and helped arrange scholarships. Even as I slept in a moldy lean-to and was poor, I knew I could solve it with my mind.” 

It was while completing a degree at UBC that Jane came upon the deeds to the Ikeda family properties. 

“And still I trusted the government and wrote a letter with the deeds enclosed, there were no photo copies. I sent them off feeling my family was owed some compensation.”

No reply, or compensation ever came. In fact it wouldn’t be until 1988 that the Canadian Government formally apologized and a redress payment was made. Some 1800 internees had died from diseases, many had passed away, the 13,000 remaining survivors were each paid $21,000. Additional funds were paid to a community fund.

Jane earned her degree in 1964, then taught in Trail BC. 

“I moved to Alberta to learn how to ski. I met Mike while both teaching at Western Central High School in Calgary. We married in 1972. Mike became a Commanding Officer, eventually we moved here to Kimberley where we’ve bought and sold many homes. We live a good, active life.”

“And this is where my second graft comes in,” Jane continues. “A friend of mine could see beyond the cocoon to my fragile self. She saw there was massive pain at the heart of my dwarfing… that I’ve been so busy obliterating my past.”

As we browse again through the photo album and finish the conversation, Jane admits that she’s never paid much attention to it. 

“My Uncle Arthur gave it to me. It’s his artistic handwriting; he never married and took time to pay attention to his nieces and nephews.”

I tell Jane what a tangible poignant gift it is and ask about the photograph of the lush tree in bloom.

“It was a Queen Anne cherry. I never liked it much since I preferred Bing cherries, sweeter and more prized as you had to buy them. I guess even then when you’re dirt poor, you put monetary value on things…”

“Are you more at peace?” I ask Jane.

“Oh sure,” she admits, yet something she mentioned earlier lingers. 

“I’ve heard it said that certain races such as the Japanese and the Jewish carry around pain. When you carry pain, you live through your ego. To live in the now, you must accept and acknowledge your past, appreciate the present as it is.”

As Jane leaves the comfort of my office for her walk in the moody September morning, it’s my fervent wish that her family’s story and the painful history of those other fellow Canadians be told and shared widely so that we never forget.

One last photo speaks to me as I begin to write that morning. It is of a school room in Southern Alberta in 1949, the year in which their rights as Canadian citizens were reinstated. Jane is sitting behind three other girls in the first row, smiling with her classmates. The other children of Japanese heritage were likely also from families sent to work in the sugar beet fields. What strikes me is how normal this scene is, as well it ought to be, and perhaps how oblivious the other children were to what their classmates had endured. A reminder that we must know and teach each generation the past.

I close the photo album of Yoshiko Jane Ikeda – a strong, contemplative woman with a complex identity, now able to claim her past. As she bravely confided, “I’m ready to put a face to my story…”

Sanctuary At A Lavender Farm… “The journey is the treasure”

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Last summer, on the island of Hvar Croatia, I swooned for lavender. As the sun lowered in the late afternoon sky, rich orange hues danced on field upon field of profuse purple stems. As far as the eye could gaze, we were entranced by the island’s signature crop in bloom – the view, the scent, was simply intoxicating, a moment etched on my traveller’s heart.

On a fine summer day this past week, once again I wonderfully found myself surrounded by heavenly lavandula, but this time it would be a hands-on experience. We had been invited to help harvest, so ‘the girls’ and I drove west from Kimberley, through the old mining town of Moyie, past the quaint stop at Yakh where you might just glimpse those roof-top goats grazing improbably above the Yakh Soap and Candle Co. Then onwards toward the Creston Valley, a veritable cornucopia of farmland, orchards and vineyards.

We started with an ‘obligatory’ wine tasting at the Baillie-Grohman Estate Winery, named for the Anglo-Austrian aristocrat who made his way to the valley in 1882. While on a hunting expedition with the future United States president, Teddy Roosevelt, the explorer saw the possibilities of the region. Granted a ten-year lease of almost 50,000 acres from the government, William Adolf Baillie-Grohman settled in the valley, creating a dyke system to reclaim fertile land from the Kootenay River, operating a steamboat to facilitate the passage of goods and settlers to the area, and he also found time to serve as Justice of the Peace for the Kootenay district.

More European settlers arrived to the area from the mid 1880’s and a general store, sawmill, clearing and planting of orchards soon followed. Today, the hillsides around the picturesque town of Creston are credited as the first to capitalise on the area’s potential for fruit bearing trees and, as we sample wine at the Baillie-Grohman Vineyard, there’s no doubt it’s the ideal first stop in the valley. Capturing the essence of the Creston valley, the row on row of grape vines cradled on the slopes of gentle mountains evoke serenity amidst the quiet productivity of the valley.

But we’re here for another delightful crop, lavender, and so we wend our way a little further north of Creston to Wynndel. Once dubbed the ‘strawberry capital of the world’, Wynndel now flourishes with livestock, dairy and hay farming. When we reach our destination for the afternoon, Sanctuary Lavender Farm, immediately we see that we are in a place of sanctuary, a haven of serenity, as if drawn into a canvas by Monet. I’m instantly transported back to Croatia, even to France, then at once I’m full of gratitude that this is in our own ‘backyard.’

We’re welcomed by Jade, the resident long-haired Siberian Forest cat, and her owners Kevin and Alanna. I had already read an article about the two lavender farmers. I was curious to learn why they had sold a successful business in a popular mountain town near Vancouver to take over a lavender farm. I was interested in the harvesting process and the products that they create. And, naturally, we were eager to start harvesting, and strangely excited to wield a scythe.

Alanna had sent a message after we had settled on the day and warned us that there might be mosquitos as we worked in the fields. And she added, “So before you say yes, I want you to know about that… but this is offset of course by the aroma and the peace, and the buzzing of our friendly bees.”

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Her description of the lavender farm she and Kevin bought almost three years ago summed it up succinctly. Yet until you’re standing amongst the rows and rows of lavender in bloom, the peace and serenity is difficult to convey. The plump bumble bees only compliment the living palette as they continuously buzz and busy on the lavender – part of nature’s cycle that we soon feel in tune with. With scythes handed to each of us, Kevin demonstrates how to take a small handful of lavender stems, cut carefully, repeat until a bunch is formed, secure with a band. As the bunches slowly grow and rest on the harvested lavender beds, bees buzz languorously, Jade slinks and suns herself, billowy clouds drift above, we savour deep breaths of lavender-lush air.

There are close to seven hundred lavender plants on the Sanctuary Farm; today we’re harvesting French lavender. An ancient flowering plant of the Lamiaceae, or mint family, the name lavender comes from the Latin word lavare meaning to wash given that it was commonly used by the Romans and in medieval Europe to scent water for washing clothes and for bathing. In Tuscany, it was used to ward of the evil eye. In ancient Egypt, lavender essential oil was one of many herbal oils used to preserve bodies for mummification; inexpensive, readily available, valued for its antibacterial properties.

Many of us well know the stress-relieving, calming properties of lavender, something I imagine Kevin and Alanna benefit from daily as they breathe in the atmosphere and soak in their tranquil setting.

“I still can’t believe I live here,” Alanna muses as we take a moment to gaze over the rows of lavender, and beyond. Rays of sunshine are dappling the late afternoon vista – tidy, diminutive knolls of purple against imposing emerald peaks.

As we’ve chatted, alongside one another, or scythed in silent harmony, an entire row has been harvested. It’s been over an hour and feels like a quarter of that. Countless bunches now await their placement into Kevin’s wagon where they’ll be trundled to the small drying shed. The French lavender will remain hanging, ‘bloom-side down’, for two weeks of drying. They’ll then be lovingly fashioned into Sanctuary’s retail products; candles and soaps, lavender wands and neck pillows, wreaths and sachets, or in their delightful elemental bunches. The products now grace local markets and stores in the Kootenay region and have become a go-to choice for gifts for many of us.

Laying down our tools, we gather on the shady terrace for a coffee and some lavender infused biscotti. The conversation meanders to Kevin and Alanna’s journey, of their transition to a slower-paced family life – their son Shem is with extended family this weekend.

“If you want to fly, you have to give up the ground you’re standing on,” Kevin says with the wisdom of a sage.

Even as their flower/event business in Squamish flourished, the couple reflect on their desire for more privacy and family time; they dreamt of making a change.

“We put our intention out to the universe, we wanted to be grounded with the senses,” the two explain.

“I had been perusing the real estate listings one evening.” Alanna continues, “we might have had Nelson in mind. Just as I was about to close my laptop, an ad for this property popped up. My heart started racing. I got tingles. The house and position on the slope of a hill was what we had aspired to. Oh, and then there was the lavender…”

There was still a business and a house to sell, their family split between two locations for a time as they transitioned. In time, it transpired into a home, a community and a lavender business they adore, Sanctuary Lavender Farm.

Kevin, originally from Sydney, Australia, chuckles that he’s gone from a flower shop to a lavender farm. As I take a photo of the two of them, Alanna wonders if her hair is alright. “You’re beautiful, just beautiful,” he says to his partner in life and business.

When Alana talks about their journey, she mentions that they both grew up with single moms.

“We drove a battered car and worked three jobs to open our flower shop.”

The couple radiate an intrinsic joy and calm spirt that seems to invite those around them to celebrate life. I hear one of them mention that the farm is like a botanical garden and can easily imagine the panoply of colours that play out as the seasons change.

As we finish our second session amongst the lavender, it’s difficult to pull ourselves away. Alanna shows me the lower beds. Ayla, Trixie and Jade pose for photos. Kevin has taken our precious bundles to be hung.

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Alanna I discuss a future collaboration, maybe a writing workshop amongst the blooms? She motions to the girls who are engaging Jade to pose for a photograph.

“How lucky are you to have those two lovely young ladies in your life… and they you,” she says. Of course I agree wholeheartedly.

It’s been a fabulous day spent together. How did Kevin put it earlier?

“The journey is the treasure.”

 

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Many photos contributed by Trixie Pacis at http://www.trixiepacis.com

 

 

Celebrating 6 Years… a video chat

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Hi Everyone,

Join me for a video reading to celebrate the sixth year anniversary of ‘notes’… pour a coffee or a glass of wine, depending on your time zone, and allow me to muse just a little.

Many heartfelt thanks to all my readers, to my writing tribe scattered here and there, to my friend and mentor Jo Parfitt; everyone’s support has meant so much.

And a special thanks to my parents and to my dad, for having faithfully printed off each and every blog through the years… they came in ever so handy today!

Enjoy and be safe,  Terry Anne xx

 

 

Jennie’s Masterpiece… the story of Butchart Gardens

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I can picture Jennie Butchart, suspended high up in a bosun’s chair, carefully coaxing soil and vine roots into limestone crevices of the abandoned quarry. She had commandeered the vast gaping hole, and now her Sunken Garden was taking shape.

“You’re ruining the country, Bob, just to get your old cement,” Jennie had reportedly chided her husband. A 1952 article in Maclean’s Magazine described it as thus…

“One day in 1909, in a glade sloping to a salt-water bay on the Saanich Peninsula of Vancouver Island… a woman stood on the edge of an abandoned quarry and began to cry.

Jennie Butchart knew the quarry well. For more than three years she had lived beside it. As a chemist in the cement works of her husband, she had analysed its high-grade limestone. She watched it yield them wealth. She knew its moods in the moonlight and at the height of storm. But the tears came because she hated it more than anything else in the world; its very ugliness so fascinated her, she could not stay away. 

The perpendicular quarry walls, twisted from dynamite blasting, dropped sixty feet to a quagmire of two and a half acres of clay. Out of a subterranean spring percolated a muddy creek which fed a deep pond on the quarry floor. A hummock of grey rock, unfit for cement, rose like a spire from the centre… Jennie Butchart stood and cried.

It was then an inspiration came to her, ‘Like a flame’ she was to say, ‘for which I shall ever thank God.”

The Butchart Estate (pronounced Butch – Art) included both their home and the quarry. Now that Jennie’s creativity and determination had been sparked, debris and rocks were replaced or hauled out. Horses with wagonloads of soil trudged back and forth to the site. Douglas firs, cedars and Lombardy poplars were strategically placed – flowering trees, shrubs and annuals would follow. Jennie envisioned colour and vibrancy. To her, the eyesore was a canvas on which to blend a palette of nature’s rich hues and textures. After all, at heart Jennie was an artist… the world famous Butchart Gardens would become her living masterpiece.

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Born in Toronto, in 1866, Jenanette Foster Kennedy was orphaned at only fourteen. Sent to Owen Sound to live with an aunt and her seven cousins, Jennie thrived in her new family. Both intelligent and artistic, she also embraced outdoor life while attending the prestigious Brantford Young Ladies’ College. Yet when offered a scholarship to continue art training in France, the young graduate declined. Instead, she choose a life with her new beau. The eighteen-year-old married the tall, determined, twenty-seven-year-old Robert (Bob) Butchart.

The young businessman was an innovator and within four years had opened Portland Cement Mill in Owen Sound. Portland cement derives its name from England, where in 1824 bricklayer Joseph Aspdin, patented the blend of limestone and clay. He named it after the local Portland stone it resembled.

In 1902, Bob would hear of a large deposit of limestone at Tod Inlet on Vancouver Island, about 20 km north of Victoria. With two daughters in tow, Bob and Jennie moved across the country and soon established a quarry and processing plant. Vancouver Island Portland Cement Company was the only cement-producing company west of the Great Lakes. The company not only pioneered refinements, but was the first to ship cement in sacks, rather than heavy, cumbersome barrels. Fortunes soared dramatically as Bob began to supply cement to facilitate the rapid building in the burgeoning province and beyond.

Jennie did not sit on the sidelines; she earned a certificate in chemistry to work in the firm’s laboratory. Yet her surroundings awakened her artistic inclinations. Re-envisioning her quaint on-site home, she hosted tea, croquet and tennis parties. Jennie was always forging ahead. The magnificent Sunken Garden was completed in nine years and to this day, cradles Jennie’s breathtaking vision. Yet if the old quarry is Butchart Garden’s celebrated centrepiece, supporting works of ‘art’ accompany this National Historic Site of Canada.

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The rambling Rose Garden, blooms with some 280 varieties. The Japanese Garden, its authentic Torii gate, stepping stones, maple and beech trees evoking serenity. The Mediterranean Garden, a celebration of the island’s balmy, temperate climate. The Coast Salish totem poles, honouring the storied culture of the island’s indigenous peoples. And my personal favourite, The Italian Garden – once the family tennis court – anchored by a sensuous arched wall of green, exotic palms and plants flourishing from around the globe.

For indeed, the Butcharts were also avid travellers. A trip to Rome had inspired The Italian Garden, while travels to the Himalayas, the Pyrenees and the orient garnered yet more unusual plants as well as collectibles such as urns, statues and pagodas.

As Jennie’s gardens were designed, planted and flourished – with flowering plums, magnolia, dogwood, Siberian wallflowers, bachelor’s buttons, peony and so much more – her home flourished as well. After numerous expansions, a welcome sign in Italian hung over the door. The lady of the house epitomised the spirit of ‘Benvenuto‘.

Friends began to visit the gardens, they brought their friends, and their friends brought other friends. Soon the garden opened officially three days a week. By the First World War, sightseers were flocking to the garden in tallyhos, on horseback, aboard country trolleys. Now, Jennie flung her garden gates wide open… and left them open seven days a week.

When strangers peered in the windows of Benvenuto, friends would suggest to Jenny that she should charge admission. “Oh no” she’d reply, “the flowers are fleeting. Why shouldn’t people enjoy them? They’re free for all.” Only one sign asked for ‘privacy’, and still does today. Enclosed by white lattice, it was Jennie’s one retreat – her private garden.

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Bob contributed to the thrilling panoply with rare birds, peacocks, pearl breasted pigeons, English and Mexican canaries, water fowl and German bullfinches trained to whistle. He imported 565 Japanese cherry trees to lavishly line the public road to the estate. At the time, its ‘beauty second only to Potomac Drive’ in Washington DC.

The entrepreneur expanded into timber, steamships, shipbuilding, coal, hardware and trusts. He had one of the first automobiles on Vancouver Island and followed it up with imported European and luxury models. With his chauffeur often in the back seat, Bob was known to cruise at breakneck speeds. When he reached eighty, his concerned wife convinced the police to revoke his driver’s license.

It’s said that Bob had the bearing of a distinguished officer, but it seems the self-made millionaire enjoyed life with a wry sense of humour: games of rummy with his servants, given to piping melodies from his beloved pipe organ into The Italian Garden to serenade lovers on evening strolls, offering a doctor who had performed an operation part cash and part world travel for payment… the doctor took him up on it!

It’s reported that in contrast to her husband, Jennie was ‘as blunt as an Irish washerwoman’. Just over five feet, she was a force to be reckoned, one who cared more about the colour flow of her gardens than the cut and fashion of her dresses. Who can blame her that overalls and a straw hat were her preferred garb. She was an excellent storyteller, loved a good earthy joke… she was generous and kind. Each week, a gardener would don high rubber boots, wade into the wishing well to fish out the coins that visitors had cast in. Wheelbarrowed over to Jennie as she sat on her sun porch, she would help package the coins to donate to charity.

As the unpaid official welcomer for the city of Victoria, Jennie entertained dignitaries, conventions and whole army regiments. She hosted tea parties for the poor and the aged, and delighted in drawing word pictures of the flowers for the blind so they could envision them as they savoured their scents. Sharing the enchantment of her garden was Jennie’s gift. Even when, by 1915, some 18,000 people toured the gardens, she refused to charge admission.

During the ‘off season’, the Butcharts embarked on extensive world tours (today the gardens are open year round.) “It seems lonely when the crowds stop coming,” Jennie lamented and Bob agreed, “I can’t understand how some people shut themselves away from their fellow man. Why, I’m never lonely when I can see so many people enjoying themselves every day.”

In 1931 Jennie was recognised as Citizen of the Year by the City of Victoria. In 1938, the ownership of the gardens was transferred to their grandson, Ian Ross on his 21st birthday… it is still in the family today. In 2015, Jennie was inducted into the Business Laureates of British Columbia’s Hall of fame. Their motto – they built, we benefit – seems tailor-made for Jennie Butchart.

As I wandered the gardens, I mused that her spirit still graces the vistas; from the dramatic Sunken Garden to the whisper of maples gently rustling in the Japanese Garden from the dancing fountain to the riots of colour and the vivacious scents of the blooms. It’s recalled that during Jennie’s time, many visitors didn’t realise the property was a private garden. People plucked flowers and fruit from the trees – this meant fewer to give away to hospitals. A few were known to pilfer coins from the wishing well. A family dog and a garden peacock were carried off. When visitors carved their initials on various trees, Bob patiently designated a tree for that purpose alone.

Yet more often than not, their generous hospitality was repaid in kind. When the King of Siam visited, he invited the Butcharts to visit his palace in Bangkok. The following year, the travelling couple gladly took the King up on his offer, spending twelve days as his guests. The Butcharts lived well, both overseas and in their tucked-away haven on the Tod Inlet.

I vividly envisioned Jennie, weaving her way through her garden, luxuriating in the divine setting she had created. Perhaps this last anecdotal story, during the visit of an English explorer, portrays this inspiring lady at her finest.

“I know one flower you haven’t got,” the visitor piped up as Jennie showed off her 5000 varieties. “You don’t have the blue poppy of Tibet.”

Jennie slyly led the visitor to a bed of heavenly blue poppies. “Why that’s impossible,” the Englishman exclaimed. “I just discovered them myself in Tibet!”

And indeed he had, and had then sent one flower from Tibet to London’s Kew Gardens. But Jennie being Jennie, had wasted no time and had already garnered the seeds from the blue poppy. I like to imagine her re-offering the guest a seed or two from the very flower he had sourced.

If only, if only we could stroll through the gardens with Jennie by our side…

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If you go…

The Buchart Gardens are a short drive from Victoria, or hop on a bus

Visit in the afternoon and stay for the free summer evening concerts… Jennie would be pleased with that!

Enjoy dinner in the Dining Room overlooking the Italian Garden, or at the more informal Blue Poppy Garden

Do buy some seeds in the wonderfully stocked Gift Store

Adhere to the Garden’s Etiquette including no selfie-sticks and quiet conversation…

Read more about Vancouver Island’s other inspiring artist I’ve written of, Emily Carr, and of the island itself

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Emily Carr… Victoria’s free-spirited writer and painter

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IMG_3403Jack and Eloise

“Don’t you love her shoes? asks a lady in a cozy hand-knitted bonnet. “But I think Emily might have suffered a little from bunions,” she says pointing to sturdy, laced loafers. Surveying the bronze statue, I agree, then gesture to a monkey perched on Emily Carr’s shoulder. “That will be Woo, her Javanese monkey,” Eloise tells me with a ring of affection.

We happen to have ambled up to the likeness of Emily Carr at precisely the same time. The warmth in my new friend’s voice and the twinkle in her eyes endear me to her immediately.

It seems apt that I meet Jack and Eloise on the corner of Government and Belleville Streets – a window on the soul of Victoria. The grand Fairmont Empress is Emily’s backdrop, kitty-corner from British Colombia’s Parliament buildings, next to the Royal BC Museum; all anchored by the harbour with its schooners, pleasure boats and float planes.

Victoria, the capital of BC, sits at the southern tip of Vancouver island on the Pacific Coast. A short sail from Vancouver, it is a city of glorious blooms – billowy cherries, plump magnolias, abundant daffodils and tulips, heavenly hyacyniths and pansies; a cascade of colour in the crisp April air.IMG_3393 (1)

“Do you know our Emily?” Eloise asks, almost maternally.

“Indeed I do, in fact today”, I tell the friendly couple, “I’m tracking Emily through the city.”

Emily Carr (1871 – 1945) is one of British Columbia’s most beloved figures – a painter, a writer, a free-spirited rebel. Emily proclaimed her profound love for the Canadian West and is best known for lush, haunting forest-scapes and powerful portrayals of totem poles. At heart, she was also a fearless traveller; the essence of her nature was to embrace the landscape and native culture at their source.

IMG_4686I tell Jack and Eloise that as a writer, not only do I love Emily’s words, but I admire her intrepid explorations to capture her favourite subjects. Once vital cultural entities in First Nation villages, Emily seemed prescient in knowing that totems would ‘disappear’ as the Colonial settlers pushed the Coastal First Nations away from their lands, stripping them of their deep-rooted culture.

“Off she’d journey,” I added, “on working steamers, small boats, even dugout canoes. With a dog in tow, she’d arrive on the shores of a First Nation village, taking it on faith that she’d find shelter.”

Emily Carr’s paintings created a lasting, brooding documentation of the proud sentinels that watched over those villages. She was respectful and deeply empathic, “It  must have hurt the Indians dreadfully, to have the things they had always believed trampled and torn from their hugging.” E.C.

Emily became friends with the people of the First Nations and was bestowed with a native name that she proudly proclaimed for the rest of her life…Klee Wyck…it means the ‘Laughing One’.

The iconic symbols of Canada’s First Nations stand stalwart and proud from our vantage point; contemporary carvings by descendants of this land’s first settlers. One totem is nestled by the harbour and another seems to guard the nearby British Colombia Parliament Building. I admire the colours, the symbolism of each carved raven, orca and thunderbird capturing tribal lore, evoking spirit and culture.

“The next time I paint with the locals I’m going off on a tangent tear. There is something bigger than fact: the underlying spirit, all it stands for, the mood, the vastness, the wildness, the Western breath of go-to-the-devil-if-you-don’t-like-it, the eternal spareness of it. Oh the West! I’m of it and I love it!” E.C.

It’s obvious that Jack and Eloise also have an appreciation for this island and this city. Like many retirees, they have chosen Victoria for the temperate climes, the ocean, the beauty, the quaint Victorian charm. With a sly grin, Eloise reminds her husband of sixty years that, “I’m not moving again dear.”

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I bid a fond farewell to Jack and Eloise. “Do go see Emily’s family home,” Eloise suggests as she takes my hand warmly.

“It’s on my list,” I promise, “but first I’ll duck into the Empress while I’m here.” “Oh yes dear you must. It’s been refurbished and the Victoria’s are lovely!”

A horse drawn carriage clops past, a London-inspired double-decker bus waits for tourists, while chimes reminiscent of ‘Big Ben’ pronounce the time.

 

The Victoria’s and Anthony

I spot the Victoria’s immediately. They weave history into art with a modern edge and are the perfect backdrop at The Empress’s Q Bar. Then again I muse, perhaps some modern versions of Emily Carr’s paintings might have been apropos.

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I’m distracted by a man’s voice at the bar. He’s weaving a tale of Victoria’s history to the bartender and I’m drawn to his narrative like a magnet. I practically pull out my Moleskin in anticipation as I slide onto the barstool next to him. “You’ve chosen the best seat in the house,’ Anthony smiles, offering his hand in welcome.

Born and raised in Victoria, Anthony declares, “I know every inch of this city and have a fierce love for this Empress Hotel.” Motioning towards the Crystal Ballroom, he fondly recalls this as the setting for his high school graduation and where most Victorians were treated by their parents to their first ‘legal’ drink.

With the Victoria’s as our backdrop, Anthony relates that life as an ‘island child’ was idyllic and a stint away in Eastern Canada from the age of six to ten was more than trying. “I was at peace when I came home again – this is where I belong, who I am.” His sentiments seem to echo Emily Carr’s.

Anthony looks outwards to Victoria’s inner harbour through aged stained glass set into tall window sashes. “I remember when there were no cruise ships, only steamships. I recall the Royal Visit in 1982, peeking into a port-hole of the Royal Yacht Britannia. You know why the Empress was built I’m sure”, he wonders out loud.


I do know that the Edwardian, chateau-style hotel was designed for Canadian Pacific Hotels and opened in 1908. Serving those who journeyed to Victoria by CP’s steamship line, it became a tourist destination from the mid 20’s. The impressive Rattenbury-designed edifice has played host to Royals, movie stars and the famous. “What of Emily Carr?” I ask.

I had read she was known to take tea, dine, attend lectures and concerts at the Empress. “A dull tea with a dull woman at the dull Empress. The pups were the only gay thing about it and the conservatory a joy of airy, fairy, gay colour, too exquisite and upstairs to describe in words, like colour stairways of joyousness leading out beyond earth things.” E.C.

We discuss that it wouldn’t be surprising for Emily to find the Victorian ritual of English Tea (still a major tourist draw at the Empress) too confining and pompous. We ponder the rebel side of Emily. To Victoria’s refined middle and upper-classes who melded into a city said to have been built as a replica of Britain, Emily was regarded as ‘quite crazy, eccentric and bizarre’. Eventually she would embrace the isolation, yet the loneliness never subsided.

After stints at Art Schools in the US and abroad, Emily thought nothing of smoking, wearing trousers and hand stitched clothes, riding cross-saddle, camping, and generally bucking the traditions of acceptable behaviour for someone born into a genteel English family.

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Emily Carr

“We didn’t learn much about Emily in school,” Anthony confides to me. “As a boy I knew her paintings were on stamps and that she once had a pet monkey. You kind of knew she had been an eccentric.”

I comment on the new, also delightfully eccentric murals and ask his opinion about the refurbishment. “Queen Victoria means a lot to me, like Emily Carr, my roots are English.”

Victoria was named in honour of the Queen in 1843, a few years after James Douglas was charged with establishing a trading fort for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The port city later became a supply base for miners, many from the US, en route to the gold fields along the Fraser River. Immigrants from the British Isles were plentiful, enticing families such as Anthony’s for its British ‘sensibilities’. I comment that perhaps it’s fitting that a statue of Queen Victoria towers just across the street – evidence not only of the past, but of Canada’s proud position today as a member of the Commonwealth. Along with the statues of Victoria and Emily, there are others along the harbour that tug at one’s emotions and attest to this harbour’s long, maritime history.

I can well imagine the countless tales that have been woven at this Empress bar throughout the years – the settlers, the travellers, the sailors and the gold miners. Or like today, an illuminating discussion during a delightful chance encounter. Yet it’s time to take my leave from the engaging Anthony and from the royal gaze of the Victoria’s. It’s time to visit the Carr family home.

 

The Carr Family Home

“Father bought ten aces of land, part of what was known as Beckley Farm. It was over James’ Bay and I have heard my mother tell how she cried at the lonesomeness of going to live in a forest….The house was large and well built of California redwood, the garden prim and tended.” E.C.

This ‘forest’ and the environs, only a mile out of the city in 1863, had a profound impact on Emily’s formative years. She was creative, a tomboy and prone to imagination as a child, a contrast to her ‘girlie’ sisters and her strict, autocratic father. Richard Carr was a successful merchant and had a soft spot for his youngest daughter. He had saved her first charcoal sketch of the family dog – perhaps the only recognition by a family member throughout her entire life, that she had any talent. Mr. Carr fired her artistic inclinations with stories of Native culture and the virgin forest he had encountered.

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Today the Carr home is flanked by spring flowers and signage with Emily’s evocative words. “Nothing, not even fairyland, could have been so lovely as our lily field. The wild lilies…did something to the back you your eyes…they were white, with gold in their hearts.” The home’s orchard, lily fields, farmyard and forays into nearby Beacon Hill Park and to the ocean, fuelled Emily’s love of nature. It would offer much needed solace when her mother died, and then her father. Emily was only seventeen.

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Kitwancool 1928

Escaping the stern ‘rule’ of an older sister to study at the California School of Design in San Fransisco, the nineteen year old embraced the freedom and her new outlets for expression, Yet she returned to the ‘big house’ in 1893, setting up her first studio in the barn’s hayloft and teaching art; hoarding her earnings in an old boot hanging from the rafters. A trip to Lake Cowichan, then one to Ucluelet, finds her sketching in the villages. It’s here she acquires the name Klee Wyck from the First Nation families with whom she bonds.

At the age of 28, Emily had saved enough to set out for further study in London. The hopeful beginnings turned to hardship, a spurned romance, a breakdown with 18 months in a sanatorium. Five and a half years later, she returned home via a stop in the Cariboo, further fuelling her love of nature and adventure; her streak of rebellion now firmly rooted. “No woman had ridden cross-saddle before in Victoria! Victoria was shocked. My family sighed…cross-saddle! Why everyone disapproved. Too bad, instead of England gentling me into an English Miss with nice ways, I was more me than ever, just pure me.”

Other acquired habits like smoking further alienated Emily from her family, conservative Victoria was aghast. Another studio was set up, political cartoons drawn for a local publication, a job offer in 1906 in Vancouver took her away from the English confines of Victoria. It seems there was a collective sigh of relief.

Today, the Emily Carr House has not yet opened for the season and so I can only circle the house. I gaze up to what was once young Emily’s bedroom, I notice an easel propped against a wall, I imagine how idyllic the setting must have been for a creative mind. And I play the next years of Emily’s often tumultuous life in my mind.

~ Teaches art in Vancouver. More sketching trips and a cruise to Alaska which confirms her commitment to record the ineluctable march of the aboriginal cultural demise.

~Studies art in France for a year or so. Returns to Vancouver, extensive sketching and painting trips throughout Vancouver Island and Queen Charlotte Islands.

~First exhibit and lecture on Totems in 1913. Muted response to the more than 200 pieces. Hopes of the Government buying her collection not realized. Feels isolated with no fellow artists to commune with.

~From 1913 to 1927, art is sidelined as Emily owns a boarding house and mostly abhors the role of ‘landlady’…the attic becomes her respite. She fires pottery, knits rugs and raises dogs. Her love for her menagerie of animals keeps loneliness at bay.

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Odds & Ends 1939

~Invited in 1927 to exhibit in the Canadian West Coast Art, Native and Modern Show in Ontario, she meets the famous Group of 7 painters, those capturing the beauty of Eastern Canada. Encouraged by Lawren Harris and accepted by this prestigious group, her life is changed. She bursts with renewed creativity and resolves to become The West’s foremost painter.

~Her most productive period ensues from 1928…Emily Carr is 57 years old. She begins a regular journal, extensive trips, rents cottages for work then buys Elephant, a simple trailer for situating herself to capture the forest, now her main focus.

~Suffers first heart attack in 1937. Groups stories written over an eleven year period. First stories are read on CBC in 1940 to resounding appreciation. Suffers another heart attack, first book Klee Wyck published, wins Governor General’s Award. Book of Small published in 1942, House of Sorts in 1944. Growing Pains, Pause, The Heart of  Peacock, Hundreds and Thousands, Fresh Seeing, all published posthumously.

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The Indian Church 1929

After years of rejection and doubt, of solitude and impoverishment, a woman I feel much admiration for, had found solace, acceptance…happiness. Emily Carr was a great talent, the West she loved so fiercely now celebrates her.

I find some of Emily Carr’s last words before she passed away in 1945. Finally, they ring with joy…

“Outstanding events! work and more work! I sat self contained with dogs, monkey and work- writing into the long dark evenings after painting-loving everything terrifically. In later years my work had some praise and some successes but the outstanding event to me was the doing which I am still at. Don’t pickle me away as done.” E.C.

Priya’s story…part two

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IMG_2803Priya’s story has revealed itself gradually; snippets of conversation as we’ve come to know each other in our one year in India. I have known since she joined us as housekeeper, that Priya is widowed and raising children alone. This in itself, could be considered remarkable in India.

It is not uncommon for widows in India to be considered inauspicious and shameful to their family. They can be marginalized, cut off from family property and money, and considered an inconvenience and a burden. Widows can be abandoned with no place to go – simply cast adrift.

Traditionally, widows are expected to wear white, shave their heads and discard their jewellery – essentially renouncing anything that symbolizes womanhood. In some areas of India, social norms still hold to the belief that for a bereaved woman to remain in society, she must have a supportive brother or son.

In rural parts of India, where arranged marriages commit young women (often girls) to marry older men, it is not surprising that widows comprise ten percent of the adult female population, some forty million. Many, widowed at a young age, find that their life is essentially over or irrevocably altered. It can still be considered improper for upper castes to remarry, lower castes often do, ideally to a brother-in-law.

To understand their plight one has only to read about or see images of Vrindavan, a sacred city which has become home to thousands of destitute widows. Begging to pilgrims and chanting bhajan (sharing) hymns for up to four hours a day, earns them enough for one meal and perhaps shelter. For young widows in Vrindavan, poverty may lead to sexual exploitation, a last resort for those already stripped of their dignity. The organization Maitri endeavours to alleviate this, collecting contributions for the purchase of mosquito nets, fresh white linen saris (perhaps now a symbol of sisterhood) and even sewing machines for a widow’s livelihood.

The abhorrent practise of shunning widows is a grim residue of an Indian tradition sati or suttee, the burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyres which was once (and by some accounts is still) practiced. The perception of woman as chattel is rooted in the patriarchal culture which must change, in step with the values of a civilized society. The women at Vrindavan and other shunned widows represent all women. They were once girls, wives, mothers and grandmothers – deserving respect and dignity.

Within this cultural context, Priya’s independence and resolve is all the more admirable. She has mentioned to me that she is very careful not to acknowledge that she is on her own.

Priya was somewhat distracted this past month as her search for a new home was far more difficult to secure without a man’s name on the lease. Our offer to help negotiate was politely declined and I was relieved that a driver of another family Priya works for was available to help.

Thankfully Priya has found a new home, one with tiled floors and running water, an improvement from her previous house. However, she is not pleased that so many cows wander close by and she worried that her previous landlord might take advantage by not returning her security deposit, “Madam, this is life without a man, not easy,” she said stoically.

Recently as I relaxed, reading on my sofa, Priya eased herself down on the carpet beside me. We had just arrived home from a trip, the house was already clean and I was happy to have some time to speak with her. Priya’s brave and inspiring story flowed forth. With her resilience worn firmly on her face and her engaging personality coming through, her reflections evoked introspection, wistfulness and even laughter.

I use Priya’s own speech patterns. Madam is usually said with a Ma..dam, the last syllable lilting up lyrically as if it is a happy topic. Otherwise, the dam dips down with a tone of seriousness…it is the name she uses for me.

Priya where did you grow up?  I am not from here, from Tamil Nadu. We lived in a house of coconut leaves with mud floor, like a squatter’s village. We had no food, maybe gravy with onions and rice, once at night. I tell my children,”You are lucky.”

Did your father work?  He died, I was five. Preya puts her thumb to her mouth like a soother, indicating that her father was an alcoholic. Four other children, never enough food.

Did your mother work then and take care of you all?  She worked in rice fields, taking the husk. Very hard work Madam, 6 rupees a day.

Your older brothers and sisters, did they go to school?  No, no, no one. Sisters from a convent came to take me, so poor were we Madam. My mother said, “Take her for better life.”

IMG_0124How did you feel, do you remember this?  Oh yes, I was happy. Food was there. The bus ride was far, to Kerala, a convent. Sister Paulina took me. You know Madam, Priya gazes out to the lush rain tree and palm trees beyond for inspiration, coconut leaves were rolled long for lights (torch). Moved back and forth, very pretty at night. And spoons from jackfruit, we eat rice, lots of rice and coconut chutney always there. Priya smiles with the memory of this and I tell her I love this kind of chutney. Oh yes Madam!

Priya what did you do at the convent, did you start school?  Just a little, maybe one month, but no interest. I work, clean, play with children, pick up the coconuts. Madam, then a rich family wants to take me, “Give us Priya,” they said. I was five and a half.

Did you miss your mother, your family?  No Madam, there is nice food, clothes, soap. I go with the family and play with the daughter. I see her go to school and now want to go. I cry to go, but they say no, just housework and playmate for the girl.

Was anything paid to you, or your mother?  Yes Madam, 10 rupees a month. The convent send money to post office, to my mother. The grandmother was nice in the house. At nine, a Sister dies and I’m at convent for a break, but don’t want to go home. Priya works three years in the convent. At twelve years I go to new home. Sometimes now I talk about my family, but they buy me gold earrings, new dress to stay. From five to twelve I don’t see my mother.

Priya, all this time you didn’t study, only worked?  Yes Madam, I’m sorry but what to do, work from five years old. One day I want to see my mother, big arrangement to do this. The sisters ask, “Why Priya, they are still poor.” But I must see my mother, so I go, fifteen day holiday. Madam I don’t know my mother’s face. I go home, my sisters, brothers don’t talk to me. My language is changed. So poor, no study, only playing, no food. Mother work all day. Again I’m hungry. No clean water. Only two days I stay.

Were you sad to leave your family again?  No Madam, only think of food. It’s clear this is difficult for Priya to reconcile. The convent keeps me now to work, mother can come once every two months if want, two long buses away. Madam I like the schedule at convent. 5 a.m.up, church, food, bath and work. Now too old to learn.

For five years Priya’s mother is sent a salary from the convent. They also saved money separately for her dowry.

Madam at seventeen, I’m asked, “Do you want to go to Dehli?” First time for train, happy but a little scared. One sister took me. Delhi very different Madam!

Where did you go in Delhi, to a new family?  Yes, first year was good Madam. A girl there about three, but then the Sir, you know, was slapping my bottom. One night tapping me on the arm, I sleep in the hallway. I tell him, “I will tell!” I cause big problem, no one understands why I want to go back. The Convent comes to get me, three days again Madam on train. And then bad.

What happens Priya?  My mother comes to Sisters and begs for money for my sister’s dowry. She’s old twenty-five, they give my dowry money Madam. I don’t go to wedding, a mess.

Priya that must have been a terrible shock; all those years you worked.  Yes, now the convent says, “Priya go to a convent in Bangalore, Saint Anne’s.” My God Madam, the first time off train there is breath coming from mouths, so cold, like a frozen town. I work Madam like before and now I’m old, twenty-two. Then one day, they tell me rules are change and I must marry.

IMG_9338You didn’t go back home of course, you had no choice but to marry?  No this is my life. I dream Madam and Priya laughs at her own naivety at the time, I can watch T.V, cook for my husband, a good life. Her voice trails off at what might have been…

They find money for dowry, 20,000 rupees, earrings and a chain. Some teachers collect saris for me. And Madam, everybody knows husband is a drunk. Me a good convent girl, no family wants him. And mother too, a drunk.

I’m so sorry Priya. Yes Madam, what I’m thinking, she pauses for some time, I trusted the Sisters. I remember a cleaning lady at engagement party, “The boy is a drunk,” she says and someone says shhh! But too late, maybe sisters know.


Where did you live after the wedding?  
A place Tannery Road, everybody drunk, even now I would never take children there. Fifteen days after marriage, he says, “Go to work,” the mother-in-law, “George B……Why is she sitting there, send your wife to work!” Priya laughs and repeats it twice in a threatening voice. My dreaming is finished. Madam I’m happy you’re writing.

So am I Priya. You are an inspiration, everything you’ve been through. So you went to work housekeeping, what did your husband do?  Worked in a small shop, TV repair but only drank. The Sisters came and talked to him four times, but Madam, what to do…nothing changed.

Priya would quickly become pregnant. A kindly family she worked for allowed her to rest at work, offering her extra food. With no one to collect her from the hospital after the birth, the pattern of neglect and abuse began. Priya was able to take the baby to work with her; she cannot imagine not having had this ‘refuge’. Unfortunately the family moved out of state. An incident soon after the birth of Priya’s second child, left her fearing for her life. She felt she had no choice but to flee from her husband with her two young children – with no money, no job and nowhere to go.

Priya persevered and bravely worked her way through these most difficult times. I am aware of other details of her heart-rending story but much of it is too personal to publicly share. Her resolve, determination, maternal instincts and loving character is an inspiration to me…a poignant emblem of the strength of womanhood.

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Sometime last year, despite being detached from her family for all those years, Priya took her children on the long bus trip back to the village in Tamil Nadu to pay respect to her mother,”Madam, no cross is on her grave, I must do it.”

It says much about her character that she had the charity and compassion to make this journey for a family which has not been a part of her life. I sense that she views herself as the ‘lucky one’ having been given to the convent as a young girl.

When I show this blog to Priya before I press publish, she sees her photos and laughs her infectious laugh, “Madam, to the world?” she asks. I tell her that I do know much of the rest of her story, but it isn’t printed here. “You know Madam?” Tears well in our eyes.

“Yes Priya, you are very brave.”

“Madam,” she says reflectively, “I wasn’t strong then, not like now. I tell my daughter she must study, she must be strong.”

Priya’s story…the cadence of an Indian neighbourhood, part one

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IMG_2803Priya’s story has inspired me to write. To write of her courage of overcoming a difficult past and of capturing the lives of all the hard-working people in our neighbourhood. Allow me first to paint a picture…

It has been busy these past few months; trips to Brunei, Singapore, Bangkok and a road trip in India. Our comings and goings every other week bewilder the staff of our five-family apartment building; a gardener, two security guards, a manager and Priya, our housekeeper. They are very much a part of our everyday life.

“Madam, where going now?” Boran our gardener typically asks when he sees me with luggage in the porticoed entrance. When I tell him my destination, he looks at me quizzically, “Airplane?”

“Yes by airplane Boran, back in seven days. Sir is back in four.” ‘Sir’ is my husband,  in deference our names are never used. Not only is the country which I’m traveling to a complete unknown, so is the fact that often my husband and I leave together, yet return at different times. Or I travel alone, leaving Sir to ‘fend for himself’.

“But who will cook his food?” it seems half of the street initially pondered. This question was reconciled as they saw Sir on the street buying his produce from Raj, our vegetable wallah. When my husband revealed that he could cook his own food, there were looks and mutterings of bemusement. “Sir cook himself?” This is something new…

IMG_1577Boran is thirty-two and like many men who work in Bangalore as gardeners or security guards, he is from the north of India. They are a three-day train journey from home, usually taken only once a year. Working from afar, their families remain in the villages, reliant on monthly remittances.

As Boran watered the plants on a recent afternoon, he was eager to share some news. “Madam, I get married.”

“Boran are you getting married, congratulations! Is it arranged?” I already know the answer to this question; it would be unheard of for him to not have an arranged marriage.

“Yes Madam,” he says, scrolling through photos on his phone to present his bride-to-be. She has a kind, cheerful face and I’m relieved to see she is not underaged, often the reality in India. “She twenty-six Madam, very good. Come to wedding Dec. 26?” Boran asks with his boyish smile. When I explain that we’ll be home in Canada at the time, he’s not too concerned and mentions that our day-time security guard Kajul will return soon with some news. “Maybe he married now,” Boran says with a sly grin.
IMG_1581Kajul has replaced our first guard Rajesh Kumar who, a little tipsy one night, took a topple from his bike. A month in his village to heal broken bones was prescribed, but no sign of him yet – the ‘grapevine’ hasn’t provided any answers.

Where Rajesh Kumar was reliable yet often mystifying to communicate with, Kajul is unfailingly good at his job and speaks enough English should an emergency arise.

He is also ever the gentleman. Meeting me half-way down the street if I’m carrying more than one bag. Telephoning as the cry of a wallah heralds a vendor’s arrival,”Good Morning Madam, today vegetables?” Insisting on standing at my open door should a repair or delivery man be present. “Safety Madam,” he says. I’ve missed Kajul while he’s been on leave for his sister’s marriage.

About the same age as Boran and as the head of his household, it was Kajul’s duty to provide the dowry money for his sister. “Maybe Madam, when I come back I married too. But sister first,” he told me before he left. He wasn’t sure if finances would stretch to allow his matrimony, though his mother had someone in mind. We shall know in a matter of days when he returns.

Kajul has worked in the Middle East, a desired location I learn from some of the security guards who man almost every apartment building, stores of any repute, schools, clubs, etc. The job is monotonous with twelve hour shifts of sitting and waiting…perhaps a visitor, a delivery, a vehicle to open the gate for.

The guards are a club unto themselves and nothing escapes their attention. When Sir recently had to climb down a ladder from our balcony to get to work at 6:30 a.m. (the lock had jammed), he was updated on the state of affairs as he turned onto our road at 5 p.m. The gaggle of guards in front of the jewellery store chuckled knowingly. “Sir, climbing down this morning? Locksmith here, all fixed now!”

On our street of three villas, three businesses, two apartments buildings and a private school, there are never fewer than a dozen guards at any time of the day. We know most of them and are greeted with a wave, a Namaskara, or a chat. “Madam going for lunch?” “Where is Sir now?’ “Sir, have not seen Madam for two days?”

And we learn of their lives. George Fernandez worked for years overseas, “Happy home now Madam, how is it in India?” he asks, peering through smudged glasses. He springs his roly-polly figure up from his chair each time I walk past. He tells me about his children, “some in university now”, the satisfaction radiating from his proud face…years of working away from his family now just a memory.

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Another ‘on-duty’ sits under the welcome shade of a large banyan tree. Vijay Kumar is a tall man with the countenance of a doctor or a lawyer. He also courteously rises from his chair with a greeting. “Good morning Madam, where going?” he asks on a recent morning. I tell Mr. Kumar  I’m on my way to the doctor and a look of alarm crosses his face. Reassuring him it’s nothing serious, I ask about his grandson. “Oh fine, fine,” he replies, pulling out a wallet-sized photo, “And now a name is there Ma’am.”

Mr. Kumar announced last month that he had become a grandfather and also informed us that the baby hadn’t yet been named. Following a Hindu tradition called Namakarama, on the fortieth day a baby is blessed, sprinkled with holy water and given its name at a local temple. It was a proud moment when Mr. Kumar could share his grandson’s name with the neighbourhood and distribute the requisite sweets.

Bidding farewell, my direction is the local doctor about three blocks away. It’s a beautiful spring morning; the trees are erupting with blooms, the bougainvillea bursting with lively shades, jack fruit and coconut are plumping up melon-big…I cross the road to avoid an imagined concussion. Mango trees are starting to bear their coveted fruit.
IMG_0121 (1)‘My’ mango tree which I see from my window will be harvested in July. A barefooted climber will scuttle up its massive branches and shake the mangos loose, dropping them onto a sheet, hoisted up at each corner. One after another the mangos will tumble down.

I had been promised last week by Anu, my neighbour across the way, that I must taste some this year. We hadn’t chatted for a few months and finally caught up Sunday morning IMG_2537around Mangalora’s fruit cart. After hugs from both of the ladies, and an admonishment that I am never here, Anu asked if I’m home now. “I leave later this week again Ma’am, I’m a speaker at a conference and will go home to see family.”

While we chose our apples and papayas, Anu asked what I’ll be speaking of and reveals that she had once been a teacher. The congenial Sunday morning chat ended with a “Safe travels and blessings to your family.” I resolved to make a point of getting to know Anu better, hopefully over some delicious mangos.

IMG_0277On this morning I turn the corner onto Lavelle Road, mindful of bikes, rickshaws and laden vegetable carts. A pony-pulled cart surprisingly trots past. Another unexpected sight greets me in front of Sodabottleopenerwallah, a restaurant we’re fond of. A brass polisher has set up in front to polish the tiffin boxes. The waft of red-hot charcoal infuses the air as the wallah heats, scrubs and buffs the small pots used for curries and rices. The sidewalk serves as the wallah’s work bench, ideal for this vital itinerant service.

The charm of our neighbourhood is just this; the traditional with the modern, the unexpected with the reliable.

As I make my way onto the busy main road, nestled in the shade is the usual chai wallah. His customers are gathered around for a morning tea break. He delights in his photo being taken, but the nearby newspaper wallahs don’t have time for such nonsense. They’re gathering their deliveries from stacks piled on the ground…The Times of India, The Deccan Herald, the Bangalore Times. Once strapped onto the back of their bicycles, they’ll be delivered in time for morning coffee.

When I reach the small hospital another block away, I am the only foreigner and curiousIMG_1280 stares greet me as I pay the 500 rupees (10 dollars) for my consultation. The doctor’s professionalism belies his simple surroundings and when he hears that I write, our conversation meanders to authors and history, to the once sleepy and peaceful Bangalore. “This was once the ideal city, so green with a temperate climate,” the doctor says ruefully, reflecting on his more than two decades in the city.

I leave and walk to my corner-store, Asha’s. I don’t know if it has served the community for twenty years, but I imagine so. About as big as an over-sized garden shed, two people cannot pass through its narrow space at the same time, yet the well-stocked shelves never seem to let me down.

Namaste Madam, what today?” Rafik asks, then pulls the items off the shelves as I call them out. He informs me that he finally has some cheese in stock, I’m pleased with this news but it seems I don’t have enough money with me. “Madam, tomorrow is there,” he says tearing a small recipt from its pad. Each item has been handwritten and it seems I’m 639 rupees short. “Thank you Rafik, I’ll come back tomorrow.” I smile to myself as I leave, knowing that my credit is good in the neighbourhood…truly a local now it seems.

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As I arrive back at my street, a busy scene greets me. Raj’s vegetable cart is positioned half-way down, Arun is cycling up with a bag of laundry in need of pressing and the postman is delivering today’s mail. I don’t get a chance to speak with him, but I engage Arun and Raj.

“How long have you been in business Raj,” I ask admiring the decorative touches on his trusty blue cart. It is well- laden, down to its inner compartment stuffed with greens –spinach, coriander, mint and curry leaves. It requires strength and concentration to maneuver this movable shop along the city’s busy streets.

IMG_0095 (1)“Nineteen years Madam, but the cart is new, 2004. Cost 32,000 rupees.”

“That’s a lot Raj,” I confirm, knowing it’s a substantial investment. “Yes,” he agrees and pats the handle of his cart,”and only one driver!”

We both laugh and Raj hands me the handwritten slip of my purchase. He clicks his tongue and shakes his head when I tell him I must go inside to get some money, “Tomorrow is there Madam.”

Arun unlatches a bag of laundry from his bicycle, just collected from a neighbourhood customer. He and his partner Laurence are iron wallahs and set up most days under the shade of ‘my’ mango tree. This bag of clean garments, along with many others awaiting their turn, will be pressed, wrapped in newspaper and delivered by dusk. Arun’s sturdy Atlas bicycle will roll back down the street with the deliveries.

“It’s a good bike Arun,” I offer, noting the brand.

“Yes Madam, Indian made and old.”

I ask how long he’s been in business and Arun seems chuffed to tell me. “First my uncle for 37 years, then dead. Now mine for 7 years.” I suggest to him that his Uncle would be proud and he smiles quietly.

Arun, as with all the wallahs and guards, no longer appear surprised that we choose to interact with them; perhaps they’re pleased to have some interaction as they work through another long day. The word wallah is Sanskrit for keeper and Hindi for doer, it describes these hard-working entrepreneurs well.

I realize that this is the day I truly feel at ease with my life in India. We’ve just celebrated our one year anniversary in the neighbourhood; it’s home.

IMG_0098Just then Priya walks up to start her three hour shift. “Madam, just home? Where were you?” she wants to know as she takes one of the shopping bags.

We walk up the wide steps, to my apartment where a wooden bench from the Middle East sits against my marbled entrance wall. It has welcomed me home in five different countries. We plunk the shopping down on it as we remove our shoes.

I fill Priya in on my morning, “I was at Asha’s and seemed to speak to everyone in the neighbourhood this morning, Mr. Kumar’s baby now has a name Priya. And I had to go to the doctor before I leave at the end of the week.”

“But Madam,” Priya says, her usual vibrant tone turning melancholy. “So long, over one month away?” she says remembering I’ll be gone longer than usual.

As she ties on her apron once inside, Priya asks ,”Madam, still cold in Europe and Canada?”

“Yes still cold, I must pack warm clothes this time.” With this she smiles mischievously then raises her voice in laughter, “Well Madam, enough clothes are there,” Priya says referencing my closets. This I can’t deny, nor that Priya always manages to brighten my day.

Thankfully, her days are brighter now than they once were….Priya’s story will be continued

The Cameron Highlands…tea plantations and intrigue in Malaysia

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img_2936Forgive me for musing that death by trampling elephant, marauding tiger or mysterious jungle disappearance would have been more intriguing. Instead, and rather ignominiously, Sir William Cameron succumbed to an accidental overdose of medication for insomnia.

Needless to say, I’m not wishing for any such wildlife encounters here in the Highlands. A visit here had long been on my wish list – the romance of a hill station, vestiges of colonial life, sweeping tea plantations, and the mystery of a man who truly did disappear into the jungles of the Cameron Highlands. But more of Jim Thompson in due course.

In 1885 after the British cartographer’s death, his detailed maps of this area were somehow lost. Yet Sir William’s stories of a Shangri La-like plateau lived on in popular lore and fuelled the imagination of the generation to come. Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands pay homage to this intrepid explorer. His explorations would often last for months…risking malaria, leeches, snakes, tigers and Malaysia’s ferocious sun bears.

We begin the 60 kilometre ascent from the main highway towards the promise of the temperate retreat. Kuala Lumpur with its modern skyline and grand hotels is now a few hours behind us. This road, the infamous Government Route 59, snakes treacherously to an altitude of 1600 meters with its precipitous and ‘prone to landslides’ slopes.

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The narrow thread of tarmac hugs the contours, dipping in and out of verdant valleys past whale-sized palm fronds, dense creepers and riots of wild hibiscus and tall, crimson poinsettia trees. And bamboo, so tall and wayward, it arches into a natural canopy shading the road below. I am struck by the sheer enormity and improbability of forging a trail though this impenetrable, primal landscape.

I imagine Cameron’s forerunners hacking a pathway for the convoy, elephants steadily plodding, shouldering and crashing through. I picture the explorer sleeping atop his sturdy pachyderm, safer there than on the ground below. His is an image of the quintessential British adventurer; intense and curious, indomitable and stalwart. Perhaps like others he hoped for fame, but the spirit of the times also created remarkable individuals driven by sense of duty…and many who simply craved the adventure.

The plateau that Cameron spoke of would later entice the British Government to the Highlands. They desired a hill station – a retreat of cool, misty air – also ideal for cultivating tea and vegetables and flower gardens.

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Forty years on, Sir George Maxwell launched a new expedition. Starting where Cameron had left off, it was soon evident that elephants were not suited and Maxwell diverted to the once bridle path that we are now cruising on.

Route 59 weaves its way through settlements of the indigenous Orang Asli people. Their traditional wooden houses are set back from the road and stand on short stilts, protection from floods and ideal for air ventilation. Dogs laze out front and roosters peck all around. We pass the most basic of settlements, a woman cradles a pet monkey like a precious baby and children play with make-shift toys. I take a photo of a vendor’s baskets. They are brilliant against a striking vista and I buy something…anything…just to contribute to the family’s income.

Between the villages, the road is punctuated with hut after hut, in reality just rudimentary lean-tos with atap roofs. They are crucial venues from which to sell, providing income for the Orang Asli and other locals. Often just a few bunches of an unknown fruit, bananas and long, long runner beans dangle from the lengthy bamboo beams. And maybe some vivid dome-shaped baskets (to protect food from flies)…it isn’t a lot to sustain a family. But then, I don’t know the whole story.

This contrasts a small, hectic village where a gaggle of tourist buses threaten to block the junction. Mass tourism has reached the Highlands and stalls are grouped to entice the crowds, and the odd backpacker more prone to jungle treks than shopping.

A young man at a well-stocked stall notices me eying the mysterious fruit. Wedging out a piece from the tough, unadorned skin, he offers a sample of the fleshy fruit inside, “Jungle mangosteen,” he tells me. It tastes like the anti-oxidant-rich mangosteen I’m familiar with and this variety seems to be in abundant this time of year.

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Further down the road we pass a trio on a motorcycle. Junior is napping on the handlebars, nestled into dad who threads the family vehicle along the twisty road. A tall basket hugs the young mother’s back. I know these rattan vessels are used for collecting the ‘King of Fruit’, the durian. Despite its spikey armour, the durian is a fickle fruit. Once it has tumbled to the jungle floor, it must be collected quickly before its freshness fades.

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img_2827Risking tiger attacks as they scour the jungle undergrowth, durian pickers rush to bring the costly commodity to market. The putrid aroma of durian belies its creamy, sweet taste. Or so I’m told…I can’t bring myself to try the noxious fruit. In hotels and public transportation throughout S.E Asia, signs strictly forbid durian on their premises.

As we arrive in Ringlet, the first township in the Highlands, we chance upon Mr. Lee offering the coveted produce from the back of his battered Land Rover. He has an awarding-winning smile and does his best with his limited English. Yet he seems distracted, peering up and down the road for potential buyers. Mr. Lee needs to sell his ‘heavy as a bowling ball’ fruit…durian has a short shelf life.

Nearby, Sun and Crystal run the family nursery shop. “The Cameron Highlands is also the land of orchids,” Sun shares, “and for vegetables and strawberries.” She shows me stalks of spear-like asparagus, while Crystal peels back the husk of a sweet corn cob and proffers it raw. “It’s how we eat it here,” she says. When I attempt to buy some strawberries I’m refused, “No these aren’t tasty enough today, can you come back tomorrow?”

Sun shares that she has lived in Kuala Lumpur, yet prefers life in the hills amongst family, friends and fresh mountain air at the family farm. We’ll soon see the vast number of small farms for ourselves as they compete for prized terraced land alongside tea plantations. As I bid farewell, Sun and Crystal insist on having a photo taken with my business card. Promising to include them in this blog, Sun’s radiant face beams even brighter.

img_2894We arrive late afternoon at one of the former colonial hotels, The Lakehouse. Upon retirement Colonel Stanley Foster opened it in 1966; relatively late as guesthouses and bungalows sprung up here from the 1930’s onwards. The Lakehouse is how I envisioned.

It sits pretty in Tudor style and stately atop a manicured terrace with its white picket fence and pristine gardens. Once inside, reminders of the past conjure days when British government employees left their ‘posts’ and retreated to the hill station…or indeed decamped here to work for ‘The Empire’.

Victorian furniture and Persian carpets decorate The Lakehouse, objects from simpler times: archaic desk telephones, copper vases and spittoons, framed polo photos and worn church settles, cozy next to walk-in stone fireplaces. Yet a framed collection in the hallway conjures the true tonic of the Cameron Highlands, its flora and fauna. On display are green blumeis, lemon migrants, jewelled nawabs and Malay lacewings – delicate butterflies of breathtaking beauty.

Lemon migrants have flitted around us in abundance today. But as we enjoy a pre-dinner drink on the terrace, it isn’t what we see…it is what we hear.

Dusk is approaching and if you have not heard the ‘call of the jungle’, it is an awakening in itself. A rousing masterpiece, a veritable soundtrack of curious and mysterious notes. The din of frogs, insects, birds and monkeys. A sizzle of an electrifying buzz that vibrates the dense evening air. A backdrop for a second melody of chirps, coos, hoots and howls, of slow languid flutters and then long, rattling rattles crescendoing to a lingering his-s-s-s-s.

From the gorgeous terrace view, the silhouette of the jungle provides a provocative  backdrop. All aglow under the luminous super-moon, magical and mysterious. Nevertheless, I simply cannot contemplate the thought of stepping into the clamour and its known dangers (and I now fully understand how poor Cameron could not sleep.) And then I remember the afore mentioned Jim Thompson.

It was 1967 when the American architect, former spy, art collector and founder of the Thai Silk Company holidayed here with friends…just up the road at another colonial guesthouse, the Moonlight Bungalow. After an Easter church service and tea on the terrace, Thompson chose not to take an afternoon nap as the rest of his party had. He fancied a light stroll. Perhaps he donned his straw trilby hat and grabbed a walking stick before stepping into the jungle. Jim Thompson would never return.

I know of Thompson from his House On The Klong. On my first trip to Asia I visited his home, now a museum. The art collector assembled a number of houses into a luxurious long, open air home along a muddy canal in Bangkok. I was bewitched. Its art, sculptures, thai silks, and the sultry air intoxicated this young traveller. Was the wonderment due in part to the disappearance of the flamboyant owner who simply never returned?  And so this is where the mystery lies, in the thick of a Malay jungle…

At the time of the disappearance, local guides with extensive knowledge spent days searching for the 61-year-old. But to no avail, Thompson’s body has never been found. Any number of theories exist – devoured by a tiger, a planned disappearance, or being a former OSS agent, perhaps an elaborate kidnapping? But I digress…we are here to visit the tea plantations after all…img_3007

By chance we only have time to visit one of Cameron Highlands tea estates. The narrow road leading to the BOH Plantation is layered with small farms, providing a peek into daily life on the terraces.

Verdant terraces of vegetables…colossal cabbages, patches of mint and scads of corn.

Greenhouses with creeping strawberries, silky orchids and festive poinsettias.

And places to worship; a Chinese shrine, an Indian temple, a simple sacred family alter. It is a picture of cultures in harmony.

Yet before we arrive at the oldest plantation in the Cameron Highlands, we do stop once or twice. I must capture these dated Land Rovers that are ubiquitous and innumerable in this highland terrain. They have clearly been the work-horses for decades – rather endearing in their rusty, run-down, yet reliable condition. The Rovers ply these roads with produce on its way to market, with workers back and forth to the fields.

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The family business of the BOH Tea Plantation reveals itself like an emerald, undulated carpet. Rather than busing it to the base of the entrance, we choose to walk the kilometre to the factory. img_2995We pass barrack-like cabins where the pluckers live and we take the liberty of skirting the road, treading on water channels that double as steps and define the vast fields of the Camellia Sinensis.

The higher the tea plantation’s altitude, the better quality of the tea. A tea plant can live to 100 years, the BOH’s planted their first  in 1929.

The estate sweeps in all directions. One wants to roll a hand over their manicured patterned rows. Glide it across their unblemished, waxen leaves. How is it, how are they all plucked? One can’t imagine.

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We climb to the lookout for the view that must be one the finest in the Highlands. We sip tea on the terrace and sit contentedly. Yet now I’m distracted. One can’t help but theorize about poor Mr. Thompson. Yes, it must have been a tiger…

The joy of womanhood and a Tante… of tulips and hofjes in Amsterdam

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IMG_2279Her name was Klara. She was a true Amsterdammer who rowed the Amstel and cruised the cobbled streets, stylish and carefree on the back of her paramour’s motorcycle.

That was many years ago, just after the second world war, long before she succumbed to old age and a mind stripped of precious memories.

I thought of my deceased great-aunt this past trip as I strolled from my hotel to the FIGT Conference in Amsterdam. I not only luxuriated in the cool air, but in the Anton Pieck perfection of doll-like houses along serene canals. I take my level of comfort here for granted, yet I owe much of that to Klara who shared it with me eagerly from my first visit.

Not long out of college, I fell head over heels for this city of Rembrandt and IMG_2219Golden Age architecture, of stout upright bikes and tulips in infinite bunches… of tall homes with gables of necks, steps and bells.

From her simple, postage-stamp sized home, Klara seldom joined me, but would send me forth with explicit directions to explore. Then on my return would relish in every little detail.

To my delight, Klara’s book-shelf was stuffed with musty history books about Amsterdam. After thumbing through them, I would return them exactly to where I had found them. In a small space, everything has its place and Klara liked things just so. Klara could be stubborn and delightfully opinionated (a little like all of the women in our family) but she grabbed life and dangled it enticingly before you.

IMG_2490I keenly felt Klara’s absence one chilly day while exploring. I warmed in a simple cafe; one that serves mushy pea soup and burns long stemmed candles on scratched, worn tables. One where velvet curtains encircle the entrance to keep out the draft – where locals linger over a Heineken.

I found myself in the Jordaan. This had been a working class neighbourhood where tanneries once bustled and where masons and road builders had lived. A place where still today, stone carvings on building fronts tell stories. Ah, there lived the cobbler, a builder, a mason, a cooper, or a seller of hot water and heated bricks for warming your feet. Much needed when the fog and damp settled over the canals and froze you to the bone.

IMG_2494These chiseled cartouches implore us to slow down and conjure that time. I also come across shops that aren’t fancy and offer ‘stuff’ spullen, places where one can browse endlessly. I see a vision of Klara’s home that once proudly displayed all the trinkets gifted to her and wonder where it had gone.

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Yet as much as I miss Klara, I hear her Dutch accent echo in other women that I have the pleasure of meeting during my stay. One another day, I’m befriended by Patricia at the Van Loon Museum; her English has the same cadence and warmth.

“Are you enjoying the exhibit?” the stylish woman asks as I’m intently perusing faded receipts from Parisian corset and lingerie shops. They’re arrayed beside an ‘evening wear diary’… so vital was it to not repeat frocks and evening gowns in the social whirl of a wealthy Dutch family at the turn of the century.

Patricia and I continue together, marvelling at the exquisiteness of The Mode Exhibit. We appreciate collections of jewellery and fine beaded handbags, then transfix on the lush fabric wall-covering that adorns this stately mansion. We admire the chandeliers, detailed family portraits and even modern-day tulips and perfumed roses. It all brims over with the richness of, simply… beautiful things.

I sense Patricia is familiar with the giddy lifestyle of cocktail parties, soirees and lovely homes as she relates her swinging Paris days. She’s a striking, refined lady of a ‘certain age’ and reveals more about herself over a cup of strong Dutch coffee.

“I’ve had it all,” Patricia tells me, “now my life is art galleries, museums and concerts.” It seems this cultured life suits us both and as if to prove it, she implores…

IMG_2207“If you like this, you must see the Catwalk IMG_2192Exhibit at the Rijksmuseum.” Off we go on the sun-drenched yet brisk day, to soak up yet more exquisite fabrics and designs. Gathered from centuries past and as early as the Golden Age when Dutch culture was at its zenith, the creations rotate slowly on a long oblong stage as if on a sumptuous sushi belt. Enthusiasts of all ages sit at this avant garde fashion show, coveting the delicate, aged designs.

IMG_2241 (1)“Oh how my Tante Klara would have loved this,” I proclaim to my new friend. I relate how years ago Klara had given me a black lacy dress, sleeveless and hand-stitched. She had once worn it with panache; I was thrilled to have it as mine and wore it with infinite pleasure. Klara’s seamstress eye would have devoured this collection that was swirling slowly for appreciative fashion- lovers.

Patricia and I admire the ‘poster’ of the exhibition. Model Ymre Stickma’s image is super-imposed into a print of the voluptuous wedding dress, the elaborate masterpiece of the collection. Captured by the renowned Dutch photographer, Erwin Olaf, her hair is deliciously coiffed and her décolletage devilishly exposed; it was the ankles during that period that were seductive and kept hidden under heavy hems.

I take a photo of Olaf’s work, brilliant in its marrying of classic fashion with the vitality of a beautiful, empowered young woman. Prachtig, prachtig, I hear Tante Klara’s approval… superb, superb!

IMG_2214Through the following days I meet many empowered and interesting women. The Families in Global Transition Conference brings many together; they thrive in careers and raise children globally, they are entrepreneurs, authors, publishers, educators, life coaches and more. We network, learn from each other, dine, laugh, lament and celebrate as one. We comment on how fortunate we are to come together, how marvellous it is to share stories of womanhood against the backdrop of a global life. We hug our farewells, restored and uplifted.

IMG_2506 (1)The company of these kindred spirits comforts me in this first return to Amsterdam; the first time that Klara is no longer here. The last few visits dementia had stolen her spirit, her creative and inquisitive mind, and just a few months ago her life.

Late one afternoon a few of my friends and I are on our way to dinner. “Come with me,” I say, “there’s a special place I want to show you.”  I guide them off a busy street through a carved, stone archway that reads… Begijnhof. We emerge into a serene setting, the rattle of trams and the whirl of bicycles disappear. The courtyard is quaint with churches and houses that beg you to whisper and reflect.

This tucked-away sanctuary was similar to a monastery for women, the Beguines, a Christian religious order whose members lived in semi-monastic communities. First mentioned in 1346, the Begijnhof is the only medieval almshouse founded in Amsterdam. The last Beguine, Sister Antonia, died here in 1971 and still today, all the inhabitants are female.

IMG_2375Klara first introduced me to this serene oasis, and as I was then, my friends are charmed with its beauty and calm. The houses and churches that line the square are mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries; beautiful in their aged grace as is the elderly lady we encounter.

Shielded from the chilled March air in a camel-coloured fur, an elderly lady has just placed her walker at a solid wooden door. When we ask if she’s fortunate enough to live in this lovely Begijnhof, she nods and points to the first floor. Books crowd her window sill along with one of those simple brass candle holders… all framed by delicate lace curtains.

We introduce ourselves. “My name sounds much prettier in Hebrew,” she says with an engaging smile. We’re pleased when she lingers to speak to us.

“Where are you from?” she wants to know and her eyes twinkle even brighter when she hears that we come from various continents and live in others. Susan is inquisitive and delighted to hear this, then earnestly tells us to enjoy our time together. We bid her a fond farewell and agree that it’s good to know these hofjes were once scattered throughout the city, sanctuaries for women. They still are it seems.

IMG_2444 (1)A few days later I spend the day with a dear family friend, we were both fortunate to have been like the children that Klara never had. Hetty tells me of her final days and the peaceful end.

We had planned this gathering to reminisce about Tante Klara. “These are for you,” Hetty says softly, motioning to an array of ‘stuff’ on her dining table… it is heartwarming that it remains.

There are photos albums with dried flowers from my wedding and pressed heather from a trip to Scotland. There’s a tea cup from a visit to Canada and tarnished silver spoons embellished with Delft blue and white. All precious moments in time.

“Choose some jewellery,” Hetty continues, “and I think you’ll like these.” A passel of thimbles lay close by and my finger-tips brush over the dimpled silver. I know that Klara used them often. She loved stitching and creating of all kinds; it’s what she ‘did.’

Just one woman’s pursuit that fulfilled and gave satisfaction. No, her creations weren’t as beautiful as the lovely things this trip has put before me, but that isn’t what’s important. Engaging in anything from stitching to poetry, from reading to golf, to quilting to hiking… anything that we women pursue for pleasure, for the joy of womanhood, is to be coveted and embraced.

IMG_2579The first thing I had done when I arrived in Amsterdam was  buy tulips. “I’ll need a vase for my bloomen, please Meneer,” I had said to my host Pierre when I checked in at the charming Seven Bridges Hotel. As if by design, my room had thick velvet curtains, an armoire and an antique oval table for those tulips. I felt as if I was back at Klara’s.

Before departing from the city that I adore and returning to my new home in India, I posted a card to my mother in Canada.

As a ten year-old, she had waved farewell on the S.S. Waterman as her family sailed away for a new life, leaving not only country but their family. She remembers wondering she’d ever see them. Happily, they have all been a special part of our lives through the years.

That card to my mother was decorated with tulips and I penned details to her; of remembering Klara, the lovely mementos and time with Hetty, and that she had most certainly been there with me in spirit… it seems that Klara had been as well.

Version 2

The Ktunaxa people, Gordie’s story…part two

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The former St. Eugene Mission School on an autumn day

This is a continuation from part one

“My grandmother brought me to the school, it was 1957. We pulled up in a horse and buggy, my brother and sister were already here which helped a little.”

I’m standing with Gordie at the bottom of the steps that lead to the imposing door of the St. Eugene Mission, once a Residential School. It is easy to imagine the foreboding, the instinctive fear that young Native children like Gordie felt when they entered the school for their first ten month term.

“I was frightened and remember the feeling of resentment towards my grandma. She had helped raise me. It wasn’t until later that I realized she didn’t have a choice but to let me go.”

Gordie is tall and lean, his long greying hair topped by a baseball cap. It’s the tradition of many First Nations to keep their hair long, it’s an extension of their spiritual self.

Having offered to give me a tour and talk about his time at the school, Gordie greets me warmly this cool autumn morning. He’s just finished his shift as the night-time superintendent of the St Eugene Mission Resort. As a student, Gordie lived and breathed this school, his memories are deeply etched. He now walks through it with some measure of peace and acceptance.

From 1912 to 1970, more than 5000 First Nation children were removed from their families to comply with the government assimilation program and brought to this school, one of eighty former schools across Canada. However, its perfect postcard setting in the interior of British Columbia is deceptive.

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Refurbished and renewed

“I suppose I was lucky, I was dropped off by a family member. Some kids were left here by Indian Agents, whisked away before their families even knew they were gone.”

Gordie explains the cruel truth that Agents were often paid to ‘round up’ ‘Indian’ children, especially in remote areas. The children were sometimes taken when they ran to a plane that had landed, then spirited away with the promise of a ‘ride’.

“They were given a number, with no consideration of their name, then placed in a Residential School.”

Gordie will tell you that this was by no means the worst of the Residential Schools. The entrance of the former St . Eugene Mission School is now a hotel lobby. It has a welcoming and dignified atmosphere, vastly different than it once was. Solid in their longevity, the red brick walls are invisibly marred with strife and untold hurts. People like Gordie are now willing to tell their story.

“Our hair was chopped off, and from that moment the school did its best to eradicate our language and culture. This is where you waited to be taken away by the nuns to the dormitories.”

‘Indian Hall’, I believe Gordie called it as we begin a tour and conversation that lasts five hours, but felt like just a few. He points to a black and white photo near the front desk. The image shows a group of older girls gathered in front of the school, smiling proudly astride their horses.

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Gordie Sebastian with a plaque that pays tribute to his role in the refurbishment of St. Eugene Mission

“Do you know anything about horses?” Gordie asks, pointing to their bridles and saddles. “Does this look like we were poor or wanting? No we had a culture, a life, it was taken away.”

I’m instinctively drawn to the collection of photos in the nearby corridor that I had been so taken with the previous day. Gordie reveals parts of his story through them, bringing the images to life with his narrative.

A seemingly typical school is portrayed; a hockey team, the school band, a choir, children in uniforms seated at their desks.

“It looks like you were involved in a lot of activities?”

“We were. Saturday was hockey, we also had a baseball field,” Gordie tells me.

“Are you in any of these?” I ask as my finger scans over children positioned in front of the school steps. Standing behind the children are a number of priests and nuns, some dressed in black habits, others in white.

“No I usually had some kind of injury when it was time for photos. One time I had a bruise on my eye from a hockey puck so couldn’t be in the photo. It might have looked like I had been hit by one of the staff…”

Gordie is referring to the now well-documented mental, physical and sexual abuse, even death, that students suffered at the hands of the priests and nuns who came from afar to work in these schools.

“I didn’t have as many issues as some. I was from one of the more respected Native families so was usually safe from the abuse of the staff and other students. My dad held some sway.”

Gordie Sebastian comes from a long line of prominent Ktunaxa who owned and bred horses. He points to a photo of a group of men, four sit on their horses. One of them wears a blanket, tucked-in at the waist.

“That’s my great-grandfather, Sabas, Joseph Sebastian. He was a medicine man.”

A medicine man was a highly respected member of an Indian tribe. They were healers or ‘shaman’ who did not believe in bloodshed.

Gordie explains that Sabas and the tribal head at the time, Chief Isadore, believed that no man had the right to erect fences on the Ktunaxa land. This held fast until European and Canadian settlers usurped their ancestral land following the signing of Treaty 7 in 1887. This treaty confined the First Nations peoples to Reserves, where many of the Ktunaxa stil live today.

Gordie gestures to the photo of St. Eugene Mission, the once cluster of tipis and houses around the church where his forebears would have gathered.

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Red brick walls

He shows me a detail that had escaped me. A house stands with the top of a tipi sticking out from its roof. Like most First Nations, the Ktunaxa people didn’t adapt well to the confines of a house.

“That’s Indian Pete’s house, set his tipi up in the middle of it.”

In another photo dated 1887, a man dressed in baggy trousers and a waist coat stands in front of the St. Eugene Church. He smiles widely, beside him is a priest. They seem to know each other.

“That’s Father Coccola and Indian Pete. They paid to have the church built. In fact Indian Pete paid our way into heaven,” Gordie says with a  chuckle.

Gordie is open and candid as he explains the more serious and devastating impact the Residential Schools have had on generations of First Nations people.

“But I’ve also been told by some people that these were the best of days, away from poverty and their alcoholic parents on the Reserves.” Gordie explains that many parents weren’t well adapted to parenting as they only saw their children during the two-month summer break and perhaps for a few hours once every three weeks. Also many of them had been students themselves; their own wounds ever present.

“My father was a student here, he never told me but I think he had been sexually abused. He always checked us for signs.” Gordie says quietly.

We talk about the Priests and the Nuns whose frequent indifference to their students’ humanity exacted so much pain.

“Some of the priests weren’t that bad, but the nuns were battle-axes. Some of them could teach well enough but they had little or no compassion. Through their actions we were taught hate. It was drilled into our heads that we were useless…little more than savages.”

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The healing power of the tipi

Perhaps because of Gordie’s influential family, he reports having pushed the envelope a little further than other students. By the time he was a young teenager, he railed against his situation.

“One time I argued with a nun over a basic fact that she was teaching,” Gordie confided. “Now you know that St. Eugene Mission sits between two mountain ranges, the Rockies and the Purcells. Well she had the two ranges mixed up and I told her so. We argued back and forth, I wasn’t backing down. All of a sudden she hit me and I pushed back.”

Gordie was made to sit in the Priests’ office for the day as punishment. Once he told his side of the story, he wasn’t reprimanded further.

“Did she teach the correct mountain ranges after that,” I ask.

“Oh no, she kept telling us the wrong thing,” he says, making light of the story all these years later.

But not all punishment was that easy. Male students who ran away from the school were often found again by the Indian Agents and returned to the school. For the next two weeks they were forced to dress as girls. As shaming as this would have been, it pales into comparison of other punishments that Gordie leaves untold.

I’m particularly haunted by his accounts of the tuberculosis outbreaks. Nodding to a photo of a clearly ill student, his head bandaged, he precedes to tell me of the infectious conditions that existed in the school.

“That student had TB, he shouldn’t have been with other students,” Gordie says matter-of-factly. The rate of deaths in the schools from influenza and TB far exceeded that of elsewhere in Canada.

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The St. Eugene Mission Resort and Golf Course

Unlike many Residential Schools, only one death occurred here.

“This is her,” Gordie says pointing to a young girl. “She died when snow fell onto her from the roof. It’s good that her relatives have been here. Her name was Anette.”

Late in the interview, Gordie and I have coffee in the former chapel. It’s being readied for a function and we sit at a long table that will soon be set with linen and fine china. I’m told that healing occurs at St. Eugene on a regular basis. As painful as it is, many former students and their families return to confront the hurts of the past.

“The tipi outside is there for a reason. Even as the school was being re-purposed, it was provided for prayers and counselling.”

We glance out towards the tall white canvas. I learn that the poles of a tipi represent the different spiritualities of all people, yet they are bound together as one.

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A painting of Elder Mary Paul

“Facing the past is difficult, but it brings peace. Just as Elder Mary Paul gave us the permission to do so.”

Gordie had pointed out the painting of Elder Paul as we entered the lobby. It is with her blessing that the re-construction of this building was undertaken.

We make our way upstairs to the ‘inner sanctuary’ of the school. Now mostly hotel rooms, Gordie points out the areas which were once dormitories, kitchens and mess halls. The rooms of the nuns and priests were close by.

My sense of this building’s history is suddenly very real. I’m shown the place where Gordie’s bed had stood. We look toward the window and beyond, where the road lies.

“At least I was able to look out of the window and see my father or grandfather pass on the road once in a while. Many kids were far, far from home.”

I’m shown where a young boy stood on a precarious ledge while attempting to run away. I see the burn marks from two arson attempts on the school. I become emotional as I contemplate the daunting stairs that girls as young as four had to negotiate in the middle of the night to go to the washroom. I feel their loneliness, the longing for their home, the yearning for a mother’s touch.

“There are 68 stairs,” Gordie tells me. “I should know, it was my job to sweep and scrub them.”

He tells me it was here that a young student was kicked down the stairs by a priest, tumbling helplessly to the bottom. Thankfully he lived.

a-first-nation-partnership-success-story-8-638“One of the workers saw it happen and pinned the priest up against the wall by the throat. He warned him never to hurt a student again,” Gordie recounts. “The next day we noticed that all of the straps had been removed from the classrooms.”

As the students reached their mid teens, I imagine control must have become more difficult. By the time Gordie is this age, one of the ‘Fathers’ uses government money to fund a swimming pool and provide horses for the students. Gordie takes on the role of the ‘horse guy.’

“Finally on Sunday afternoons we were allowed to leave the school premises and ride free on our land.”

I agree with Gordie how important that must have been; that sense of independence and freedom. This also evolved naturally as the older students were sent to a local school to complete their education.

“It didn’t get much better for us. We weren’t Native anymore and we weren’t ‘white’, so we didn’t fit in. We were ‘apples’…white on the inside but red on the outside.”

Gordie was eventually asked to leave his new school over an incident that he didn’t explain. When his father found out, he was also told to leave the house. He was seventeen and on his own. Gordie went north to work in the logging industry.

I don’t hear the entire story of the years between then and now. But I know a number of family members passed away due to alcohol abuse. And I know Gordie is raising the young daughter of a relative who still battles with the trauma of Residential School.

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Solace and Peace

I also know that Gordie is one of the good guys. Not only is he helping to heal his own family, but also many of those who walk through the doors of St. Eugene Mission. They seek solace and peace from the past.

I admire Gordie greatly.